A Horrible Smell
When I walked out of my house & smelt the pungent stench of semen, I never expected my journey to end up here.
As I walked out my door I was hit in the nostrils by the smell of semen.
It was spring. I’d just left my apartment, and the stench hit me like a punch in the face. I continued wandering down the street, hoping a calm breeze would send the smell on its way — but this is LA, and there is no breeze.
It took me a few days and a lot of texts to friends to understand the culprit: Pyrus calleryana, known commonly as the Callery pear tree.
“We had them all around our high school courtyard, so when we’d be walking to classes or at lunch, we’d just have to sit amongst that smell, like, all day,” my friend Rachel told me.
“Like, our teachers would often remark on how, like, bad it was, but we just, like, dealt with it. And I think they were all around the city as well. But like, they were really concentrated in that middle part of the school.”
Listening to Rachel ramble on I realised that people in Los Angeles like to say “like” as much as Kiwis do. At some point I guess “like” replaced “um” as filler. I remember my mentor John Campbell once berating me in the newsroom after an array of “likes” escaped my mouth. I’m still, like, guilty of it.
Now I knew the culprit, I wanted to understand why. Why was this tree planted all the way down my street? Why was it at Rachel’s old school? Why had America taken to the Callery pear with such gusto? Sure, it looked pretty, but what kind of psychopath had decided to plant thousands of foul smelling Cum Trees across the United States?
But before I got to that question, I realised I’d need to know why this tree smelt like this in the first place. After a lot of googling I found Theresa Culley, a professor at the University of Cincinnati. She was a plant biologist, and obsessed with the Semen Tree.
“The answer to your question about the smell is that the plant itself is trying to attract pollinators, so it releases chemicals into the air,” she tells me over Zoom. “So they’re attracting pollinators which come in, move the pollen from one plant to another, the plants produce fruits.”
With every answer, more questions. Why would bees be attracted to a gross smelling flower? During my 41 years on planet earth, I’d discovered most flowers smell wonderful. Flowers smell so wonderful we turn their scents into candles, perfumes, toilet fresheners. Humans like the smell of flowers, and bees like the smell of flowers. What’s the evolutionary advantage to smelling absolutely disgusting?
“Flies,” said Theresa. “Flies.”
Of course the Callery pear tree would be attractive to a fly, an insect I’d never — until now — associated with pollination. “They tend to go for things that smell rotting,” Theresa told me. I tried to get her to admit that included the smell of semen but she was above that, and we moved on. Now my big question: How did this tree get so big in America?
Blame the Government
“It all started in the early 1900s in the United States,” she told me. “Back then there was the Pyrus communis, which is the edible pear that we normally eat. And there were huge plantations of it, largely on the West Coast. And at the time, a fireblight — a bacterial infection — actually attacked the trees.”
“And so the USDA decided that they needed to send plant explorers over to China to find a related species that was immune to this disease, with the idea they can bring back that species and breed it with our normal pear tree, and create a plant that wouldn’t get the disease.”
Frank Nicholas Meyer was the most famous of these explorers, and he sent back bags and bags of seeds which were then planted on the West Coast of the US.
“By the 40s or 50s there was a huge group of these trees growing by a USDA station, and one of the directors saw what he thought was a really attractive tree. So he set it aside and was watching it and protecting it. And then finally he thought, ‘That’s a pretty attractive tree!’ because it had these white blooms in the early spring.”
“And so he started to propagate it. He would cut off some of the branches and graft them onto the bottom of another plant. And he planted them all in the neighborhood around the station. And people loved them and they thought they were beautiful. They bloomed in the early spring — and so that was the Bradford! And the Bradford was the first cultivated variety of the Callery pear tree.”
They were all essentially clones — and the first clone was sold in 1961.
“People loved it,” Theresa told me. “Everyone wanted it. They saw their neighbor had one, they wanted one.”
America Loses Their Shit
It’s hard to describe how fully on board America was with this army of foul smelling clones. Former First lady Bird Johnson promoted the tree in 1966 by planting one in downtown Washington.
And I’ve been going through old copies of the New York Times, and on January 5th, 1964, the paper wrote a report on the Callery pear tree. It reads less like a piece of journalism and more like sponsored content.
“BRADFORD PEAR HAS MANY ASSETS” it yelled.
Homeowners, especially those in new developments, are concerned about improving their properties with trees that are not only suited to the existing site and climate but also to the individual style of home architecture. Few trees possess every desired attribute, but the Bradford ornamental pear comes unusually close to the ideal.
The article isn’t short, either, it goes on and on.
Leaves of the Bradford tree are similar to those of other pears. They are thick, a glossy deep green. Wavy edges cause them to quiver and reflect the sunlight during the lightest summer breeze.
It talks about the leaves, and the bark, and the blossoms — but at no point does the New York Times state that the tree reeks to high heaven of cum.
I’m reminded of a skit I came across when looking into the Linden tree, from season three of That Mitchell and Webb Look:
“I think at that time they didn’t care. They were so intrigued by the beauty of the tree,” Theresa offers. “You know, it’s one of the first that blooms in the early spring. And maybe, you know, if you have one tree, you may not notice the smell.”
I find that hard to believe.
Life Finds a Way
Back in the 60s and 70s, no one cared about the smell — but sellers, growers, and city planners started to notice a problem with the Bradford. A big problem.
In bad weather, or over time, the tree tended to sort of fall apart. It grew easily, but it was also kinda weak. If evolution had its way, this could have been the end of the cum tree. But America had made up its mind — it loved the tree, and so it would modify it. Make it harder, better, faster, stronger.
A bunch of new Bradford pear trees were developed with names like “The Aristocrat” and “Autumn Blaze”. In total, around 70 different cultivars of the Bradford were created.
But all these different cultivars created a problem. “So when everyone was planting just the Bradford, I told you how they’re clones? Well suddenly now they can cross-pollinate. And so now pollen’s all moving around and suddenly all the trees can start to produce fruit. And so that now we have all these clones of different clones now sharing pollen. And they’re producing fruits, and the birds love those. And so the birds feed on them, fly away, and deposit them elsewhere.”
Like the female dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, life had found a way.
Because of their ability to cross-pollinate, this once loved American tree is now listed in many States as an invasive species. Pennsylvania has it on their noxious weed list, and South Carolina is banning it later this year.
“Many of these trees actually revert back to how they used to grow in China. They have what we call thorns. They’re technically spurs, but they’re thorny and people don’t like that. And so there’s also evidence now that the tree is allopathic, meaning it’s putting chemicals into the ground and it inhibits other plants from growing.”
The Cum Tree — a tree brought to America by the government — is now considered a pest. Not for its smell — but for its ability to breed out of control and kill other plants.
The Cum Tree’s Final Stand
60 years after the Cum Tree was first brought to America, two planes hit the World Trade Centre in New York.
Nearly 3000 people died and thousands more were injured. It remains the deadliest single event for firefighters and police in US history. Those in the area suffered long-term health consequences, which led to thousands more dying.
There was $10 billion in infrastructure damage, and a war on terror that would see countless more killed.
And yet on that day, amongst the bodies and rubble — something survived.
“People started to notice that there was the last closest living tree next to where the Towers collapsed,” Theresa tells me, lowering her voice. “There was this tree, and it had like a branch with only a few leaves left. But it managed to survive this tragedy.”
It was a Callery pear tree.
“People working there in the recovery effort saw it as a symbol. And so they actually dug up the tree, removed it to a nursery and babied it, essentially. So this is pretty dramatic, because most of the branches were torn off.”
Workers cut out some of the roots and transplanted it to a nursery. Over the next few years, as they gave it nutrients and care, the battered tree grew back and thrived. And today, if you go to the 9/11 Memorial, you can see what is now called the “Survivor Tree.”
In spring, it stinks.
There’s a video of it on the Sept 11 Memorial YouTube page, featuring the story from the perspective of the tree.
“It is starting to come apart a little bit. So it’s all wired together. But people go and they visit the site and they go to see the tree,” Theresa tells me.
This particular tree now presents a fascinating problem. In many parts of the US, it’s now recognised as an invasive species. But in New York, it’s seen as a symbol of survival. Of virility.
In neighboring States, people are being encouraged to chop the tree down. There are buy-back schemes: Bring in a bit of Callery pear branch, and get some cash. America won’t give up its guns, but it’ll give up its Cum Trees.
“Right now New York right now is looking at the tree — the species itself — for consideration of whether it should be banned or not. It shows a really interesting crossing over of ecological threat versus symbolic necessity of the human spirit. So it’s just one of these examples of where those are actually clashing.”
When I first walked out of my house and smelt the pungent smell of semen I never expected my journey to lead to a discussion of 9/11 and the symbolic weight of a lone tree.
But here we are. Like so many things in this confusing country, the simplest question — in this case, “why can I smell cum?” — leads to some truly complex, strange places.
I don’t know where New York will land on this toxic invasive species, but I do know symbolism appears to have surpassed ecological threat. A local NY high school has started collecting seeds from the Survivor Tree, planting them as part of the ‘Survivor Tree Seedling Program’.
The idea is that people in other parts of the world can order them, and have their own Survivor Tree.
Perhaps my problem — a smelly tree — will be your problem soon, too.
I’m curious if you’ve smelt this hideous tree. It’s found all over the world — it just seems particularly common in America. I’m still surprised it got so big, considering. And yeah. 9/11. You can’t write this stuff,
Also, I fucked up and told you last time that Flightless Bird was back today. It’s actually back next week (it’ll feature this horrible tree). Still in a daze after watching Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest.