Is my neighbor’s tree causing that unpleasant smell?

By Mary Shirk

Q: My neighbor has a beautiful tree with white flowers on it in his front yard; when walking out to my car last week I noticed an unpleasant odor. What is causing the smell?

A: Are you sure it is the tree and not the natural odor of your neighbor? Just kidding. If the tree is large with white, five-petal flowers, then the offending tree with the offensive odor is a Pyrus calleryana, or more commonly referred to as the “callery pear.” The tree is known for its pungent, often unpleasant smell during its flowering stage, which has been described as reminiscent of rotting fish, chlorine or sweaty socks. The only good thing about this tree is the flower color, said Paul Knackendoffel, horticulture club president at K-State. “They used to be popular in landscapes but the industry is trying to phase them out with better alternatives.” 

While it is technically a pear tree, don’t plan on eating the fruit. “Callery pear trees make pears in the sense that a crab apple makes apples,” Knackendoffel said. “They are really small, dark green and bitter. Not something you would ever eat.”

The trees are native to China and Vietnam and were brought here because they are remarkably resistant to disease or blight, though they are regularly killed by strong winds, ice storms, heavy snow, or limb loss because of their naturally excessive growth rates.

The tree is, however, an invasive species, which is a plant, fungus, or animal species that is not native to a specific location and has a tendency to spread to a degree believed to cause damage to the environment, human economy or human health. The reason these are invasive is because birds eat their fruit and spread the seeds in their poop.

Never fear, the smell will not last forever. In fact the trees have begun to lose their flowers in the last week or so. In summer, the foliage is dark green and very smooth, and in autumn the leaves commonly turn brilliant colors, ranging from yellow and orange to red, pink, and purple. Sometimes, several of these fall colors may be present on an individual leaf.

To submit a question, send by email to questions@themercury. com, or by regular mail to Questions, P.O. Box 787 Manhattan, KS 66505.

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