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October 21, 2008

Wildfire hazard this afternoon

Scant rainfall, very low humidity and brisk winds will combine today to boost the danger that a a spark, a tossed cigarette or some other activity will touch off brush fires in Central Maryland.

The National Weather Service has declared an "Enhanced Fire Danger" for the Mid-Atlantic region this afternoon. In Maryland that covers every jurisdiction except Worcester and Garrett counties. Here's the scoop:

"A DRY COLD FRONT WILL MOVE ACROSS THE REGION LATE THIS MORNING
INTO THE EARLY AFTERNOON. BEHIND THE FRONT...SUSTAINED NORTHWEST
WINDS IN THE 20 TO 25 MPH RANGE WITH GUSTS OF 30 TO 35 MPH...ARE
EXPECTED DURING THE AFTERNOON AND EVENING HOURS. RELATIVE
HUMIDITIES WILL BOTTOM OUT IN THE 30 TO 35 PERCENT RANGE...AND
ENHANCED DOWNSLOPING EAST OF THE BLUE RIDGE COULD DROP RELATIVE
HUMIDITIES FURTHER INTO THE UPPER 20S...ESPECIALLY ACROSS THE
NORTH CENTRAL PIEDMONT OF VIRGINIA.

"THESE CONDITIONS WILL CAUSE AN INCREASED FIRE DANGER ACROSS THE
AREA. USE EXTREME CAUTION WITH ANY OUTDOOR BURNING ACTIVITIES."

While September was very wet here, Baltimore has recorded only 0.12 inch of rain since Oct. 1.

The forecast calls for a "dry cold front" to pass through the region around noon today, bringing gusty northwest winds for the afternoon and evening. Winds will be in the 20-25 mph range, with gusts to 35 mph. With any luck, it will blow your leaves into your neighbor's yard.

LA Times photoMore cold air will pour in behind the front, dropping temperatures into the 30s for the next three nights. But skies will remain pretty sunny, and starry at night, until the weekend. Then, we're looking for increased rain chances and gray skies.

The bad weather is coming from a low forming out over the Plains, which will gather up Gulf moisture as it heads east and forms a secondary storm center off the Southeast Coast. It's the sort of storm we look for to produce some of our best winter storms. But we're not there yet, fortunately.

Now, in a seasonal note, trees in The Sun's little grove of ginkgoes - or at least the female members - planted many years ago along Calvert and Centre streets in Baltimore, are once again dropping their stinking fruit. They smell like vomit, but nonetheless attract a handful of folks each year who - garbed in masks and gloves - quietly collect and open the nasty, pulpy things and harvest the seeds.

These are ginkgo nuts. They're widely used in Asian cooking, I'm told. Former Sun reporter Rob Hiaasen wrote a story in 1995 about this annual visitation to The Sun's grove. It follows below. If you have no stomach for ginkgo nut gathering, I can't blame you. But drive by our building sometime in the next few weeks as the ginkgoes at Calvert and Centre turn their golden shade of yellow. It's a beautiful show and worth the detour.

By Rob Hiaasen, Sun reporter, Dec. 4, 1995

     It was an uneventful Wednesday. Staring out the fifth-floor window of The Sun newsroom, we noted that life appeared normal on Calvert Street. People were just going about their business. Then, they came.In broad daylight, the couple came onto the property, donned masks and gloves, and began picking through the yellow, fan-shaped leaves. They were taking some kind of nut from the ground. Then, they left.

 

    A ring of nut thieves? The tip of an exportation operation? An investigation was launched. We have the resources, and we're not afraid to use them. We consulted one reference book, which confirmed nuts fall from trees. Apparently, this is not uncommon in autumn. But why are these nuts so special and worth such brazen transport?

 

    We scooped up a few nuts and immediately thought this must be an area doggies frequent. This was not a special smell. This, as it turns out, is the rancid smell of the ginkgo nut.

 

    "This buff-colored, delicately sweet nut comes from the center of the inedible fruit of the maidenhair tree, a native of China," according to Barron's Food Lover's Companion. Right between "gingersnap" and "ginseng," the entry for ginkgo nuts spills the beans. "Ginkgo nuts, which turn bright green when cooked, are particularly popular in Japanese cooking."

 

    People use these berries in food? The same nuts that emit that curb-your-dog kind of odor? Is that what the masked couple wants the nuts for?

 

    "I've never seen ginkgo nuts used, and I asked our chefs," says Joe Belvedere, assistant director of the Baltimore International Culinary College. "It may be a very regional delicacy. You got me wondering about it now."

 

    The ginkgo (GING-koh) nut is indeed an ingredient in Japanese dishes, such as Chawan-Mushi (savory egg custard). The seed is also used to make a sauce called Bai Guo, a delicacy in South China, as reported in The Sun.

 

    But one story libeled the ginkgo. A Louise Teubner-Rhodes of Towson wrote to correct us that only the female tree bears the smelly fruit. "The male makes an ideal urban tree," she said. There's a big, female ginkgo tree at the Cylburn Arboretum. "But we don't allow people to collect the nuts," says horticulturist William Stine.

 

    He says the ginkgo tree is the oldest species of tree and dates back to the dinosaurs (ginkgo nuts/dinosaurs extinct . . . coincidence?) The ginkgo, truly a living fossil, is commonly planted in parks and along thoroughfares, such as East Main Street in Westminster. The nut's smell is caused by the presence of something called butyric acid.

 

    The ginkgo nut has been a valuable staple of Chinese traditional medicine and is used to treat asthma, among other problems. The nut is also an ingredient in Herbal Ecstasy, a legal, butterfly-stamped pill. The "designer nutritional supplement" is popular at rave dance parties and has been billed as the coolest way to turn on.

 

    So, is this older couple bagging ginkgo nuts for the production of Herbal Ecstasy? Small, inquiring minds want to know.

 

    The word on the street is the masked couple walks down Centre Street on fall afternoons while making the nut run. Sure enough, they were spotted Thursday coming down Centre, crossing Charles, then setting up camp in front of The Sun and under the ginkgos.

 

    The man puts on red utility gloves. She puts on white surgical gloves. They both take out plastic bags. Both wear masks. She sits and sorts, as he crouches and gathers the nuts. He unloads his bag of nuts in front of her. She picks away the leaves and fills the master bag with ginkgo nuts. Bystanders stop, look at the couple, look up at the trees, look back at the couple.

 

    "Must be some kind of pecans or nuts, I guess," a woman says, before boarding an MTA bus.

 

    Fire engines scream by and car horns shout; the man and woman do not look up from their work. Another woman approaches the man, who just shakes his head. The woman returns, whispering, "I do not speak Taiwanese."

 

    After 65 minutes, they are done. They take off their gloves, tie off their engorged bag of ginkgo nuts and leave. Will they lead us to a Chinese restaurant or to more ginkgo trees?

 

    They walk quickly down Centre Street toward I-83. She secretly stows the bag of nuts behind bushes on Centre Street. They walk under the underpass over to Front Street, then on to Hillen Street and to the entrance of the Baltimore Gas & Electric Front Street Complex. They walk up to the security guard, who lets them pass. They enter the building and are out of sight.

 

    The guard says they work for a cleaning company and are here until about 9 p.m. He doesn't know who they are and doesn't know anything about ginkgo nuts. Based on this information, we're confident the electric company is not involved in the retrieving and storing of The Sun's ginkgo nuts. We leave the premises.

 

    Given the choice between waiting on Hillen Street in the cold until 9 p.m. or heading home to a warm house and meal -- we decide to take off. We can only hope to see the masked couple again.

 

    Friday morning, the bag of nuts is gone. And at 2:30 p.m., the man and woman return with their gloves and masks. Using a piece of paper, he writes the name Tae, and she writes Sung. Korean? They nod. Speak English? No. We grab a ginkgo nut and make an eating gesture. The woman smiles, reaches into her bag, and hands us five shelled ginkgo nuts.

 

    Awash in the scent of ginkgo, we pop the nuts in our mouth. They taste like a gelatinous, unflavored Raisinette, portions of which remain in our teeth. But this is a matter of taste.

 

    We should and will continue to open our hearts and front yard to the ginkgo nut collectors. May they come in peace with their masks and gloves.

 

    Just watch where you step.
Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:45 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Watches and warnings
        

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About Frank Roylance
This site is the Maryland Weather archive. The current Maryland Weather blog can be found here.
Frank Roylance is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He came to Baltimore from New Bedford, Mass. in 1980 to join the old Evening Sun. He moved to the morning Sun when the papers merged in 1992, and has spent most of his time since covering science, including astronomy and the weather. One of The Baltimore Sun's first online Web logs, the Weather Blog debuted in October 2004. In June 2006 Frank also began writing comments on local weather and stargazing for The Baltimore Sun's print Weather Page. Frank also answers readers’ weather queries for the newspaper and the blog. Frank Roylance retired in October 2011. Maryland Weather is now being updated by members of The Baltimore Sun staff
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