by Mary B. Davis
It’s spring! A film of yellow dust clouds your windshield. You are sneezing and your eyes are itching. Dust cloths and allergy pills come to mind. But that yellow haze is not just dust. It’s pollen. Each grain of pollen is a tiny single cell. Viewed through a microscope, they come in a million different forms, sizes and shapes and look like exquisite pieces of jewelry. Yet in this miniature grain lie all the features of its parent plant, whether it is about to become a huge tree or a small herb.
Grains of pollen: beautiful works of art under the microscope
Pollen is no good by itself. Its goal is to become a seed and to do that, it needs to reach its target – a stigma (the female part of a flower) of exactly the same kind of plant. No other will do. It may be miles away, or very close. It could be the size of a pinhead, or less. The journey of this speck of pollen, whether it is carried by the wind or an insect, is just one of the amazing things that happen every day in the natural world.
Some plants need the wind to carry their pollen. The white pine (well-named for its white wood and the blue-white lines of breathing pores on the undersides of its needles) is a familiar wind-pollinated tree in our area. Springtime is when its pollen-producing “flowers” grow at the ends of its topmost branches. When a puff of wind hits their ripe, pollen-producing anthers, you can see pollen flying out, looking just like yellow smoke.
Other plants need the help of animals to bring their pollen from flower to flower. The tulip tree is a good example of a tree that needs insects. Its large flowers, dramatically showy, bright orange splotches on lemon yellow petals, are beautiful to our eyes, but are meant only to attract its pollinators – flies, beetles and bees. The pollen of all insect-flowers is heavy and sticky, all the better to stick to and be carried by insects, rather than blowing about. Although often unnoticed by us, the moment when pollinator meets pollen is truly a magic moment – one of the many collaborations between the animal world and the plant world. One out of every three bites of food we eat is the result of successful animal/plant pollination. Imagine a world without pollinators!