by Juliet Lapidos

On a mild April night some years ago, I walked past a college dorm in New Haven and smelled something I couldn’t place. It reminded me vaguely of swimming pools. Was it chlorine? I sniffed again, more deeply than before. Suddenly I knew exactly what it was and hurried away, internally berating an unseen teenage boy. A few evenings later, in the same spot, I smelled it again. Filled with a sense of moral outrage I looked around, I looked up, and identified the culprit: A tree.

More precisely, a Callery Pear, or Pyrus calleryana, a deciduous tree that’s common throughout North America. It blossoms in early spring and produces beautiful, five-petaled white flowers — that smell like semen.

Like when you learn a new word and then see and hear it everywhere, after making the connection between Callerys and the scent of semen I saw and smelled them everywhere. I said that Callerys are “common”: A preposterous understatement. In Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, which is for horticulturists what the DSM is for psychotherapists, Michael Dirr says that the Bradford Pear — a Callery cultivar — inhabits “almost every city and town to some degree or another” and warns that “the tree has reached epidemic proportions.” There’s one between my apartment and my favorite coffee shop in Brooklyn, and there’s probably one between your apartment and your favorite coffee shop. The last time New York’s Parks Department conducted a tree census, from 2005 to 2006, there were 63,600 Callery Pears, making it the third-most popular species in the city, after the London Planetree and the Norway Maple.

The Callery’s aroma is an open secret. Three years ago The Frisky published an article titled “A Tree That Smells Like…Well…Um…,” which directed me to a Yahoo! Answers thread on the topic, and to the Urban Dictionary entry “Semen Tree.”

But in the professional literature, euphemisms abound. Dirr calls the Bradford “malodorous” and leaves it at that. (By contrast, here’s how he describes the Bradford’s fall coloration: “spectacular reddish purple, others yellow to red reminding of a persimmon orange.”)

The way I see it, there’s weirdly little attention paid to the fact that, for a few weeks each year, there’s a good chance your street smells like semen. We just carry on as if that were normal.

The Callery’s not even the most-talked-about smelly tree, a distinction that certainly belongs to the vomit-perfumed Ginkgo. There’s even a New Yorker Talk of the Town about the Ginkgo’s stench — and the three media-savvy teenagers who formed an Anti-Gingko Tolerance Group. But the Callery? The New Yorker doesn’t care. There is no Anti-Callery Tolerance Group.

Despite the absence of grassroots agitating against the Callery, we may have reached peak semen-smell. As Dirr puts it, Bradfords tend to “develop rather tight crotches,” which makes them prone to splitting as they age. And while not every Callery cultivar splits easily — the Aristocrat and the Chanticleer fare better — they’re all borderline invasive, taking up shop in abandoned lots without human intervention. (And less urban ecosystems as well: A National Parks Service publication explains how to cut them down and apply herbicides to the stumps.) For these reasons — not because of their smell — they’re falling out of vogue with urban parks departments.

New York now plants just 20 or 30 Callerys per year, while literally thousands are lost to attrition (from storm damage and such). Jeremy Barrick, the deputy chief of forestry, horticulture and natural resources at the Parks Department, expects the Callery to lose its number 3 spot in the 2015 census. He anticipates a total Callery count of roughly 30,000 — a 50-percent decline from 2006.

That’s progress. But for the time being, you can tell it’s spring if you smell semen.

Juliet Lapidos is an editor at the New York Times. Photo by Bosc d’Anjou.

Sweetbay magnolia

Tree & Plant Care

Requires a moist site in full sun to part shade.
May need some winter protection, avoid sites that are cold and windswept in winter.
Extremely tolerant of wet conditions.
Supplemental water in dry periods.

Disease, pests, and problems

Chlorosis (yellowing) may occur in high pH soils.

Native geographic location and habitat

Native to Eastern U.S.; commonly found in wet or swampy sites.

Bark color and texture

Young branches are smooth and green, older bark is dark gray

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Alternate ,simple, 5 inch oblong leaves. Medium to dark green above, silvery underneath.
Fall color is yellow-brown.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Sparse, 2 to 3 inch diameter flowers.
Creamy white flowers held singly on the the branch blooms in mid-June. Lemon scented.
Often hidden by the foliage.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

The fruit is a 2-inch long, pickle-shaped structure (aggregate) that matures from green to pink, then red. When mature the structure splits open to reveal bright red seeds.

Cultivars and their differences

Moonglow® sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana ‘Jim Wilson’): This cultivar is more tolerant of cold and can retain some of its semi-evergreen foliage more successfully in northern climates. The habit is more upright and flowers slightly larger than the species. Zone 4.

April showers bring May flowers on the mainland, but in Hawaii, spring is all year. However, there is a noticeable spring fever effect when it comes to local gardeners because many flowers start heavy blooming at this time.

Have you ever noticed Hawaiian air smells better than most other places on the mainland? Visitors and residents returning from a trip often comment about the sweet heavy fragrance the moment they step off the plane.


This is especially true now as plumeria, jasmine and other flowers begin their spring bloom. Coffee trees bloom this time of year adding fragrance along country roads along with ylang ylang (Cananga oderata), mulang (Michelia champaca), lemon scented magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and many other flowering trees.

Hawaii has a special magic. The scent of flowers perfumes the air and sets a tropical, romantic mood whether you live mauka or makai. By adding more flowering plants to your area, you can combat unpleasant smells like car exhaust fumes or rubbish cans. There are many good choices for your garden. The scent of orange blossoms and, of course, grapefruit, lime, lemons, and tangerine blossoms all have delicious fragrance. During the longer days of summer, many species of ginger are in full bloom and in the evening white, yellow and rose flowered Angel Trumpets make for perfect garden romance.

But, there are many other less known and more varied plants that can add to our gardens. All the plants listed below have fragrant flowers. Some of them such as plumeria, night blooming jasmine, fragrant dracaena, gardenia and mock orange are equipped with fragrance so potent that it can fill every inch of garden air space and drift into the house, too. Others like the spider lily produce more subtle perfumes that usually won’t travel quite as far and are best appreciated at close range. There are dozens of species of ginger and let us not forget our native alahee and hoawa available at some nurseries.

There are many kinds of jasmine as well as several other plants called by that name including star jasmine and orange jasmine (mock orange) that are not jasmines at all. There are several true jasmines that bloom with fragrant flowers. Jasminum ilicifolium and Jasminum multifolorum are two shrubs used as foundation plantings. They may also be grown as vines and will bloom more profusely. Jasminum sambac is the one we call pikake.

Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) is a vine. Tie this plant to a post, fence, or some other support and it will climb. Pinch out the viny branch tips and it will cover the ground. The clusters of star-shaped, white flowers contrast nicely with shiny dark green leaves. This vine is sometimes referred to as maile jasmine because the leaves resemble maile.

Mock orange (Murraya paniculata) or orange jasmine is a member of the citrus family and is an attractive evergreen shrub or small tree with glossy green pinnately compound leaves. The white, very fragrant flowers are produced at intervals throughout the year, followed by clusters of red ovoid fruit. It is a vigorous grower and may be used as a small tree, an informal high hedge or screen, or may be trimmed to a formal shape.


The ever popular plumeria should be found in most gardens, but a close relative is rare. It is known as tabernaemontana, or cinnamon gardenia, and was originally introduced by Paul Weissich in 1960 from Africa. Flowers are produced all during the year and have a cinnamon fragrance. The odor is delicate, but one or two flowers perfume the whole garden. Close relatives are ervatamia (crepe jasmine) cerbera, stemmadenia and oleander.

Stop by your local garden shops and nurseries to find these and many others for garden fragrance. A great reference book to help you chose plants for your garden and their care is Sunset’s New Western Garden Book, available at most garden shops.

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  • Magnolia ‘Little Gem’ flower in profile
  • Magnolia ‘Little Gem’ flower close up
  • An unopened flower on a Magnolia ‘Little Gem’
  • Magnolia ‘Little Gem’ tree in situ

Don looked at a new dwarf variety of the evergreen or Bull Bay magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). ‘Little Gem’ was developed by Warren Steed of Steed’s Nursery in North Carolina in the U.S.A. It has many of the attributes of its parent, including large white fragrant flowers, but it is a smaller, more compact plant.

Like the evergreen magnolia, the underside of each leaf on ‘Little Gem’ is a rich, reddish-brown. When you look up at mature trees the undersides of the leaves are clearly visible, and you can sometimes achieve charming effects by coordinating those colours with other things in the garden. The fence behind the dwarf magnolias shown in our segment has been painted a reddish brown colour, which matches the rusty reverse of the magnolia leaves.

Plant details

Common name: Dwarf magnolia

Botanic name: Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’

Description: Dwarf variety of the evergreen magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), but only a quarter of its size. ‘Little Gem’ will reach approximately 4m (12′) in height and 2.5m (8′) in width. It has a dense growth habit, glossy leaves with a rusty reverse, and creamy white, perfumed flowers in spring and summer.

Best climate: ‘Little Gem’ will grow well in most parts of Australia from Rockhampton in Queensland, around the southern coast to Geraldton in Western Australia. It is frost tolerant once established.

Best look:

specimen plant in lawns, garden beds or parks hedge large decorative patio pots

Good points:

large white perfumed flowers shiny green leaves with a rust coloured reverse compact growth habit


None to speak of – ‘Little Gem’ is relatively insect and disease free.


‘Little Gem’ needs a well-drained soil and a position in full sun or part shade. Mulch to keep the roots cool and moist, and give an occasional deep soaking in prolonged dry periods. Remove seed heads after flowering to encourage new growth and more flowers.

Getting started:

Available in Victoria, New South Wales, southern Queensland and Tasmania, but may be hard to find in other areas. Expect to pay from $25-$40 for plants in 200mm (8″) pots.

Little Gem magnolia named Louisiana Super Plant

By Dan Gill

LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

(11/16/18) Fall is the best time to add hardy trees to your landscape here in Louisiana. If you are thinking about adding shade trees, small spring- or summer-flowering trees or trees for screening, head out to local nurseries and purchase and plant trees in the next few weeks. The Southern magnolia is a popular choice.

The Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is well known as a traditional tree for Louisiana landscapes. Like camellias, azaleas and crape myrtles, it is often considered essential for creating a “Southern” style garden. Unlike camellias, azaleas and crape myrtles, however, which are all native to the Far East, the Southern magnolia is native to Louisiana and the Southeast.

Southern magnolias are rather large-growing trees that can reach well over 60 feet tall. But on average, trees tend to be around 40 to 50 feet tall with a spread of 20 to 30 feet. This means that you need a fair amount of room in your landscape to accommodate this tree.

The Louisiana Super Plants selection for fall 2018 provides a solution for this problem. The Little Gem magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora Little Gem) is a dwarf-growing cultivar that stays significantly smaller than the standard Southern magnolia. They typically grow about 8 to 10 feet wide and 20 to 25 feet tall.

One of the remarkable things about Southern magnolias, including Little Gem, is that they retain their foliage year round, while most magnolia species around the world are deciduous. And what outstanding foliage it is. The foliage of Little Gem is deep green and lustrous. The leaves are about 6 inches long and have attractive rusty brown undersides. This evergreen habit is most noticeable in winter when the green foliage, along with other broadleaf evergreen trees such as live oaks and hollies, provides welcome relief to the bare, leafless branches of deciduous trees.

The flowering of the Little Gem magnolia is one of the outstanding characteristics of this tree. At about 6 inches across, the size of the white flowers is slightly smaller than standard magnolias, but the fragrance is just as intense. They stand out beautifully against the dark green foliage. The Southern magnolia is the state flower of Louisiana.

Flowers generally appear in greatest abundance beginning in late April, peaking in May and diminishing in early June. But Little Gem magnolia trees reliably continue to flower sporadically through the summer, and flowers often appear as late as September or October. Overall, they bloom more and later than standard Southern magnolias. The lemony fragrance of magnolia flowers fills the sultry summer air and is intoxicating if you stick your nose right into a flower and take a whiff.

Left to grow on its own, Little Gem magnolia trees will retain their lower branches, creating a canopy that starts at ground level. This is generally not practical when growing standard Southern magnolias because their spread is so wide they would take up way too much room. But because the spread of Little Gem magnolias is only about 8 feet, this is more of an option. Little Gem trees allowed to grow this way are effective as a hedge or screen when planted in a row. You also have the option to gradually remove the lower branches as a young tree grows taller. Continue to do this until the canopy is as high as you need it to be, generally about 8 feet from the ground.

Little Gem magnolias are best planted from November through March while the weather is cool and while the plants are dormant. Magnolia roots are very sensitive to the depth of plantings, so it is critical that the top of the root ball be at or slightly above the surrounding soil.

Dig the planting hole as deep as the root ball and two or three times as wide. Remove the tree from the container, and place it in the bottom of the hole. Thoroughly pulverize the soil that was removed to make the hole, and use that soil, without any addition, to fill in around the root ball. Water the area thoroughly to settle the soil and apply 2 to 4 inches of mulch over the area of bare soil.

If planted too deeply or in a location not to their liking, magnolia trees tend to grow poorly and stay stunted. A happy well-established young tree, on the other hand, will grow moderately fast, especially if fertilized in spring each year.

Be aware that even though it is evergreen, magnolias drop leaves abundantly in spring and early summer. They also drop old petals when they are in bloom and seed cones in late summer and fall. Large standard magnolias can be messy as a result. The smaller size of the Little Gem, however, means less leaf litter to deal with. Still, it’s best to locate these trees away from pools where stuff dropping out of the tree will not be a major nuisance.

Initially, Southern magnolias have an upright pyramidal habit when young, which gradually changes into a broader canopy with a rounded top as trees age. But the Little Gem magnolia tends to keep a columnar shape through its life.

The Louisiana Super Plants program is an LSU AgCenter educational and plant promotion program that highlights tough, reliable and beautiful plants for Louisiana gardeners. Louisiana Super Plants selections have a history of outstanding performance in Louisiana landscapes or have proven superior in years of research plant trials. Louisiana Super Plants are university tested and industry approved.

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