Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Pine Pollen Week

Every summer pines everywhere dust everything with pollen.  Our white pines are prolific in this--among all the wind-pollinated trees, it is theirs that gets noticed by otherwise oblivious but fussy car owners, necessitating a visit to the carwash.  This year, attentive to phenology* as never before, I resolved to watch for the "flowering" of the pines. 

 May 14th
 May 23rd.  Each of the fat needle-like things is actually a bundle of five needles.
 May 27th
June 7th 

I waited in the spring while the white pines of the neighborhood lingered in the small, hard buds of winter.  In May I watched the buds soften, and in late May begin to lengthen into the "candles" that are a pine tree's way of growing new twigs and needles.  I watched for something to emerge from these twigs, among the five-fold bundles of needles that extended gradually from papery brown sheaths. The first clear evidence of pollen dusting surfaces came the first week in June.  On June 8 I finally spotted the little male cones in a mature tree.   

 Get your eye REAL close to the screen and squint.  (what I do, anyway.)
The little yellow things are clusters of male cones.

Only now did I scrutinized the pines in the knowledge that the male cones were there somewhere, and discover I had been looking in the wrong place: instead of the outsides and tops of the trees--easier to observe from the ground against the sky--the small male cones were crowded onto growing twigs lower down and more recessed, as if they shunned direct sunlight.  Though abundant, each golden cone was small as a child's little finger tip.  [I've since learned that the female cones are borne in the tree top, while the male are lower down: possibly to reduce the chance of falling pollen fertilizing female cones on the same tree.  (Nature usually frowns on self-fertilization, since it reinforces in the offspring harmful mutations.)]

 Pine pollen collected by dew on my kayak, 
and floated to the side of my rain barrel.

 Then, on June 11, came brief rain showers, and sidewalk puddles that evaporated to leave the tell-tale yellow shorelines of pollen.  I now walked the mile circumference of our "block" with one eye on the sidewalk and another looking for pines.  It struck me that the pollen seemed pretty evenly distributed--no one area more thickly coated than another--even though the trees were rather patchy.  Wind seems to be a pretty thorough, if random, dispersal agent. 

At that point, the pollen, so recently begun, seemed to be at an end: finding a tree that had male cones in reach, I took a twig, planning on taking a photo; but the cones crumbled before I could get the twig home.  A few days later the rain of fallen cones from one grand tree had formed thick shoals on the roadside. 

 This white pine--
 -- left this litter on the roadside (you can just make out pollen cones among the needles),
--in this quantity!

A few thoughts come to mind at this profligacy.  What an enormous expense a pine goes to to pass on its genes in its children--so inefficient compared to the targeting that comes with insect pollination.  And how critical that all the pines let go at once: just a week early or a week late, and all would be for naught: there would be no receptive female cones.  And should you be one of the few who are allergic to pine pollen, what of the sneezing you do for that week or so? it's pine sperm you're allergic to.  (Okay, not quite: the pollen itself isn't sperm, though each pollen grain delivers cargo of two sperm.)

*patterns of seasonal change in living things.

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