It is everywhere. Clouds of pollen have coated the entire Island. We are in danger of sinking under the weight of the zillions of grains of male tree dust.
Well, not really, but it is driving us all a bit crazy and putting many into a sneezing frenzy.
The pollen that has coated your car, clogged up your window screens and emerges from your nose every time you blow it will be around for a bit longer. Pollen can be green, white, red, brown or purple, depending on the plant from which it came. The current fog of yellow powder results from a tree’s need to breed and the current culprits are mostly oak trees.
Pollination is necessary for plant propagation. Pollen is the dust or powder produced on a plant’s anther that contains the microgametophytes, or male parts of seed plants. It is advantageous for pollen to be promiscuous and travel far and wide to find a willing recipient to fertilize.
To do this, pollen comes in many different shapes and sizes — pine, fir and spruce pollen can be winged for maximum dispersal. The smallest grain of pollen comes from the alpine flower forget-me-not, which measures around three micrometers, while the largest is from a cucumber flower at 200 microns. Pine and oak pollen are relatively sizeable, but don’t measure up to that cucumber flower.
Pollen moves in a few different ways. If it’s any consolation to ponder while you brush off the yellow dust from your car, airborne pollen isn’t even the most common form of dispersal. The most common form of transport is, in fact, via animals. Pollen that is transported by this method is called zoophillous and transmission is usually accomplished by insects. Pollen that is moved by insects is referred to as entomophilous, or insect-loving, pollen. Over 80 per cent of pollination occurs this way, and the top three pollinators are bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
Other pollination methods are important too. The flowers of trees are not showy enough to attract those flying pollinators, so have evolved differently to achieve a similar purpose. Most trees have pollen that is windborne, or anemophilous (wind-loving). Oak and pine trees both have this type of windblown pollen, though oak pollen is known to travel farther distances, while pine pollen typically doesn’t blow very far from the tree.
The least common type of pollen transfer occurs via water. Hydrophillous, or water-loving pollen, accounts for only about two per cent of pollination and includes plants such as eelgrass which flowers underwater and thus relies on water for transport.
In the case of the oak pollen, water, in the form of rain, is what we need to wash away the copious amounts of pollen that has missed its mark and landed on us, our homes and our cars. Oak trees can produce up to 2,000 grains of pollen per cubic meters of air or up to 10 billion grains per tree! The grains are released from the catkins that have also rained down on us lately.
And though the pollen can affect us differently, its collective effect can be vast. In the United States, four million workdays are lost to hay fever, or allergies that result from pollen. That will choke up any middle manager, likely as much as the pollen has.
Even after the weeks of rain, I beckon the precipitation to return to rid us of the devilish dust that has cross-pollinated our world.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.