Fall at the U of C

October 22, 2012 • 3:41 am

Yesterday was a glorious autumn day in Chicago, and our campus is at its best when all the trees turn color.  Here are a few snaps taken right outside the Zoology Building where I work.

The Zoology Building is adjacent to a famous campus institution: Botany Pond, so called because it was next to what was once called the Botany Building.  The pond has since been turned into a permanent fixture with a cement bottom and water drains, but it’s still lovely, as are the landscaped surroundings. Click all pictures to enlarge:

Two large ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) trees stand outside, and they drop their foul-smelling fruits at this time of year. (The smell comes largely from butyric acid). I don’t know if you’ve smelled ginkgo fruit before, but it smells like a combination of feces and vomit. Usually the facilities people put awnings over the sidewalk to prevent the fruits from falling on them, for if you step on a fruit your shoes will be redolent of dog poop all day. They didn’t do that this year.

Often I’ll see Chinese people collecting the fruits (if that’s the technical term) and removing the pulp to get the seeds, as this man was doing yesterday afternoon:

Wikipedia explains why:

The nut-like gametophytes inside the seeds are particularly esteemed in Asia, and are a traditional Chinese food. Ginkgo nuts are used in congee, and are often served at special occasions such as weddings and the Chinese New Year (as part of the vegetarian dish called Buddha’s delight). In Chinese culture, they are believed to have health benefits; some also consider them to have aphrodisiac qualities. Japanese cooks add ginkgo seeds (called ginnan) to dishes such as chawanmushi, and cooked seeds are often eaten along with other dishes.

When eaten in large quantities or over a long period, especially by children the gametophyte (meat) of the seed can cause poisoning by 4′-O-methylpyridoxine (MPN). MPN is heat stable and not destroyed by cooking.Studies have demonstrated the convulsions caused by MPN can be prevented or terminated with pyridoxine.

Some people are sensitive to the chemicals in the sarcotesta, the outer fleshy coating. These people should handle the seeds with care when preparing the seeds for consumption, wearing disposable gloves. The symptoms are allergic contact dermatitisor blisters similar to that caused by contact with poison ivy. However, seeds with the fleshy coating removed are mostlysafe to handle.

This guy is wearing gloves.

Next: a view of the biology area “Hull Court” through the Gothic archway topped with gargoyles.  The four gargoyles on each side are said to represent the four stages of student life (one per year): freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. I have no idea if that’s true, but I doubt it.

This is the Zoology Building. My office and lab are the five windows on the right in this picture, third floor. We have a lovely view of the pond:

31 thoughts on “Fall at the U of C

  1. Nitpicking:

    1) Ginkgo, not gingko.
    2) Ginkgo is a gymnosperm, it does not produce fruits. The foul-smelling stuff is in fact the outer layer of the seed.

    1. Isn’t that exactly what a fruit is – the outer layer of a seed or seeds, evolved to be consumed by some creatures to help spread said seeds?What about ‘fruiting body’?

      1. No, a fruit, technically speaking, is derived from specific tissues found only in angiosperms. “Juniper berries”, found on junipers (gymnosperms), are not fruits. They may have the same function as fruits, but are not the same thing, rather a convergence (like wings in bats and mosquitos).

      2. No. At its simplest, a fruit is a container with seeds inside it.

        In ginkgo (and other gymnosperms), there is no container. The seeds are just sitting out there in the world, vulnerable and exposed.

    2. No, you are wrong in correcting the spelling ! Wikipedia clearly states “also spelled gingko”. Jerry obviously overlooked that…

  2. Our campus at Leeds, UK is not nearly so pretty but we do have lots of squirrels which, with a little patience and stillness, are quite tame. They are wonderfully entertaining for anyone with an hour to spare.

    Most people don’t seem to have an hour to spare and march about without noticing them, let alone spending time to enjoy playing with them. Quite wrongly.

        1. The gray squirrels are still a lot of fun, though. I usually carry some seeds about in my bag, which they seem to like.

          I don’t know of any UK campus with red squirrels, but there are still red squirrels living in York (not – as far as I know – on the university campus, which is quite a long way outside York centre.)

  3. Thanks for the pics. Great minds …..I recently posted some pictures of CU-Colorado Springs – fall is a beautiful time on many campuses where there are distinct seasons.

  4. Those are really beautiful pics. Some of them would make great jigsaw puzzles too.

    It must be nice to walk to work in an office surrounded by such grounds.

    Mid winter: maybe not so much?

  5. I believe that most gingko trees planted nowadays are males, because the male trees don’t produce the noxious fruits and seeds. We also have female gingkos on our Indiana campus (they are at least 100 years old) and we need to detour around the females at certain times of year.

    1. So long as I’ve bothered people about seeds above, I’ll say this, too:

      There are no trees that are either male or female. Trees are sporophytes, a part of the plants life cycle that produces spores. Sporophytes do not produce sperm; they do not produce eggs; they produce spores–hence, they are not male, nor female.

  6. Nice photos of a nice campus!

    I’ve heard of medicinal (stimulant?) uses for gingko, but I didn’t know about culinary uses. What’s it taste like? Better than what you describe the fruit as smelling like, I should hope!


    1. The fruits drop only from the female trees. The May Clinic has a web page that discusses some of the known medicinal uses. What isn’t mentioned is that the seeds are an excellent expectorant, so can be used for alleviating congestion caused by colds or allergies. For this, the seeds are heated in a frying pan prior to being eaten, which turns them from greenish-yellow to yellow. It has been a while, but I recall them being slightly bitter. I don’t recall noticing this when I ate them in a dish ordered at a Korean restaurant, and I think the flavor was more or less neutral. I thought that I had eaten them in a royal dish called palbochae, but I don’t find them mentioned in the recipe I found on-line for that dish.

  7. Beautiful pictures – quite bucolic.

    As an aside, ginkgos also produce kynurenic acid in their leaves as they senesce in the fall. They produce this compound de novo as the chlorophyll degrades, suggesting that there has been selection for this energy consuming process.

    Kynurenic acid appears to brighten the yellow color of the leaf, much like a brightener does in laundry detergent. Why gingkos make this acid is not known. Perhaps it prevents photo-oxidation in the leaf as it senesces so the leaf can safely withdraw nutrients back in to its twigs. Kyurenic acid also makes dog pee bright yellow, and is found in humans, possibly affecting cognition. FYI.

  8. Nice photos. I lived in Foster Hall when I was an undergraduate in RMHutchin’s time. Is it still there? It was just post war, the atom was assuming vast importance, and we all were atheists, loathed the Colonel’s Tribune, and sun bathed on the Midway after doing so on our room balconies was outlawed. Amazing survey courses – Also a class taught by Norman McLean. We were exceedingly lucky.

  9. I fed the squirrels as my my father received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the U of C in an outdoor commencement, 1959. I was 10 years old, and there were still barrage balloons hanging over Stagg Field. Thanks!

Leave a Reply