Why Are the Ginkgoes Coming Down on Clayton Street?

Athens was one of the first communities to plant trees in its downtown.

Clayton is going to undergo a lot of changes.
Clayton is going to undergo a lot of changes.
As part of the infrastructure improvements slated for East Clayton Street in downtown Athens the sidewalks are going to be broken up and widened to 13 feet. And the large ginkgo trees, planted in the 1970s, are going to be cut down.

The trees, says county horticulturist Roger Cauthen, are at the end of a long life cycle. Most urban trees last about five years; the 50 or so ginkgoes in downtown Athens have lived 40 years.

They have done so for a variety of reasons: the soil in which they were planted, and on which the sidewalks were laid in the 1930s, isn't packed clay, it's good, dark dirt. The water from the roofs of downtown buildings is piped underground, where it waters the trees' roots. And the roots were "opportunistic," creating growth pathways under the sidewalks, Cauthen says.

But the trees are in what Cauthen called "an emerging spiral of decline," with about one in 20 in good shape. Their roots are now entwined with underground cables, and they are having a hard time finding nutrients. If nothing were done, in five years, the gingkoes would all likely be dead, he says. So they'll be coming down, sometime in the next year or so as the improvement project proceeds.

It's not likely the ginkgoes will be replaced with other ginkgoes. For one big reason: determining the gender of a ginkgo isn't something you can do until the trees are about 15 years old, Cauthen says. And even then, the pronouncements are often wrong. If you happen to get a female, well, you're in for a lot of work and vigilance.

That odor you smell downtown sometimes in the fall? That yucky aroma of stale beer and vomit? It may not be something left over from a freshman college student's night out on the town.

It could be coming from a fruiting female ginkgo tree. 

"The noxious odor is just unbearable," says Cauthen. His crew and he try to pick the fruit of the female ginkgoes while it's still green, before it has a chance to ripen. "It's about a two-week work project, and I'd say we get about 99 percent of the fruit. So there may still be a faint aroma."

What trees will replace the ginkgoes?

Cauthen isn't sure. He says the trees will need to grow fast, provide shade, be able to hold Christmas lights and to help create the same ambience downtown Athens now enjoys. No one tree can do all of those things, but he plans to work with the Tree Council, foresters, professors, landscape architects and garden clubs to find the best replacements.

One thing is certain, however: the newly planted trees won't stink.

Rosebud September 23, 2013 at 10:26 AM
Male ginkgo selections are readily available for planting (try Cofer's). Surely the bigger problem is that any tree species is stressed in an urban setting by pollution and less than desirable space and soil and moisture conditions. A formula for failure is to further restrict and degrade the tree root environment in downtown Athens (more impervious sidewalks and more underground infrastructure) and then continue to try to grow trees that will live long enough to provide overhead shade and other desirable features. You cannot have it both ways.
Rebecca McCarthy September 23, 2013 at 10:33 AM
I think these issues will be addressed in the coming months as the county folks try to figure out (with lots of input) what trees will do best in the downtown environment. When these were planted, there were few cables or pipes underground. Maybe the new sidewalks will be impervious, I don't know. But your level of interest suggests to me that you should be one of those talking to your commissioner and/or Mr. Cauthen or the Athens Tree Council about your concerns and ideas.
Rosebud September 23, 2013 at 02:26 PM
Perhaps I should and will. In the meantime, (after all, you opened this topic) here's a controversial idea to get others talking: How about creating an unpaved strip down the middle of Clayton St. Where the beer delivery trucks park and block traffic anyway. This could provide a blvd. of sorts and would be a great place to plant trees, shrubs, and flowers.
Nick Panetta November 27, 2013 at 03:16 PM
Rosebud, on that note, why allow vehicular traffic on any of the non-boundary east-west streets downtown? Turn each into 'green streets' similar to the 5th Avenue promenade in LA. Parking may be delegated to a new public deck and downtown can become a truly walkable environment.
Cecile Smith Moore March 12, 2014 at 06:00 PM
I am so relieved to know that new trees will be coming in, whatever they are. The last story I read on this topic left me with the impression that we were losing the trees entirely. That didn't seem right, knowing the aesthetic of ACC - and it wasn't, happily!


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