Naturalist’s Notebook: Pollen! | Tennessee Aquarium

Are you sniffling a lot these days? Maybe sneezing every now and then? Are your eyes itchy? Is your voice, like mine, scratchy?  Thousands of people are suffering these same symptoms right now.

Don’t worry. It is probably not COVID-19, and you are not in danger of death. I suspect the real culprit is POLLEN.

We have a lot of trees in Tennessee. In spring, trees want to make new little trees. To do this, they have to produce seeds. To make seeds they need to fertilize the female part of their flowers with the male part, which is pollen. This is called pollination.

Some trees depend on insects to carry pollen from flower to flower by luring them in with tasty nectar. This attracts bees or other insects that crawl into the flower for a sip of that nectar.

Flowers are sneaky. Before the insect can get a drink, several stamens that stick out from the middle of the flower and guard the entrance to the nectar rub some sticky pollen on the insect. The next flower it visits, some of that pollen rubs off and some new pollen sticks on. With every flower it visits, it is swapping pollen. Without that pollen swap, the tree can’t make seeds.

A lot of familiar trees in the woods that surround us, including oak, hickory, maple, elm, and pines to name a few, have another way to get pollinated They depend on the wind. Their pollen floats in the air, and each tree releases BILLIONS of pollen grains. This increases their chances for pollination to happen.

Each pollen grain is one cell with a ridged or spiky covering. If it finds its way into the nose of someone who is very sensitive, it could cause a nasty allergic reaction: sniffling, sneezing, and coughing. You get the idea. It isn’t fun if you are troubled with allergies.

How much pollen is produced as each tree hopes for pollination? A lot! It covers our cars and anything else left outside this time of year. The frowning face I drew in pollen was photographed on my dark blue truck. I washed it less than two weeks ago. It now looks kind of green since it is covered in a thick layer of yellow pollen.

If one of the male pollen grains finds and fertilizes a female part, then the tree deserves a smiley face, like in the other photo. Lucky for us and the trees, some of the pollen completes the mission, and we’ll have a crop of acorns, nuts, and pine cones this fall.

Happy pollen season!

Mr. Bill

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