Friday, April 1, 2016

Baltimore's own blossom festival: pretty and stinky

It is only fitting that Washington DC has the cherry blossom and we have the Bradford Pear. No tourists come to see it, but with its grit and ambiguity, it represents us well. Much less glamorous than the cherry it is such a good fit for Baltimore that Donald Schaefer declared it to be the official city tree in 1979.
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Like Baltimore, the Bradford has a split personality. Beauty and showiness on one side, systemic growth issues and decay on the other, let alone the smell.

In spite of sudden and rapid decay and "an inferior branching habit" and being "self incompatible" the tree exhibits resilience to tough urban conditions. It can withstand bad soil, winter salt, summer drought and the dust and grime of city streets and will year after year stand in beautiful bloom again when the rest of the city is still a grey dirty mess. In bloom it can cover up the worst building decay. But arborists designated it as an invasive and decry its proliferation through efficient self replication and its tendency to push out native species.

This China import had become the urban street tree of choice since the sixties until it fell out of favor a decade ago or so for its flaw of being not all that sustainable, especially its tendency of suddenly falling over at the relatively young age of fifty or sixty. An April fools day tree.

Lately finicky new urban dwellers also loath it for its smell, derision is heaped on the tree in publications who lustfully delve into seedy territory when it comes to describing the odor. Expanding on the old frat-boy chestnut that there are only two things that smell like fish, the tree is now listed in the Urban Dictionary as "semen tree" alongside a list of unsavory associations which are as much an insult to the tree as indication of apparent underlying body discomfort.
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The Pyrus calleryana Chanticleer, thought to be the ideal urban tree for its resistance to the harsh conditions of the life on the sidewalk, is on the way out where landscape designers have a say. Replacements are of a not blooming variety, Baltimore is swapping the Bradfords for American elms, red maples and Japanese zelkovas. This is a sad step for the showy side of Baltimore forcing the city to consider bloom on a deeper level than streetscapes.  That may be a more sustainable option in the long run and indicative of a deeper renewal than Mayor Schafer had envisioned..

This still leaves another true urban stinker to deal with, the ginko tree. It grows through the walls of dilapidated rowhouses. Baltimoreans call it stink-tree.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Business Insider about the "semen tree"
The Bradford Pear (Forestry)
Callery Pear (Forestry)

Photo ArchPlan Inc.

Photo ArchPlan Inc.

The Bradford even works in winter to hide decayPhoto ArchPlan Inc.

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