Pollen: Friend or Foe?
By Alyssa O'Brien, Horticulture Manager at Butterfly Pavilion
Spring is here and with it comes wonderful sunshine and new growth. But is there something sinister to notice as well? Imagine you are out on a walk. Birds are singing. Flowers are blooming. The grass is green. Suddenly your eyes begin to water. What has happened? Has the beautiful scenery moved you to tears? Possibly, but you may be reacting to a substance that is floating through the air: pollen.
While bringing beauty to the landscape, flowers also serve as a tool for plant reproduction. To produce offspring, plants must transfer male genetic material, which is contained within pollen, to the female part of the plant in the stigma. This process is called pollination and, if successful, results in a seed that will contain the genetic material to create a new plant.
In the case of self-pollination, the entire process of pollination only requires one plant. But often, a plant needs to transfer it’s pollen to a different plant for successful pollination to occur, this is called cross-pollination. Since plants can't move their pollen on their own, they rely on other means, like animals (bees, butterflies), water, and wind to carry their precious genetic material to another plant.
Bee covered in pollen.
To be successful, plants release billions of pollen grains in the hopes that some will land upon the correct plant and pollination will occur. Sometimes this pollen is inhaled by people, which may cause the body to overreact and produce antibodies in an allergic reaction. The symptoms can range from itching nose, eyes, mouth, ears or skin, stuffy or runny nose, rashes, and sore throat. To combat this, people can proactively use allergy medication in advance, take something to manage symptoms when they occur or avoid being exposed to pollen.
Despite the discomfort many feel from allergies, there are many reasons to be thankful for pollen.
- As mentioned previously, pollen is essential to plant reproduction.
- Pollen in the fossil record is used to help scientists determine what plants grew in the past.
- Pollen helps solve crimes. Each plant has its own unique pollen composition and palynologists (pollen and spore scientists), use these “pollen prints” as forensic evidence to find crime scenes and identify evidence. You cannot wash away a pollen print!
- Many animals eat pollen, including humans! There are several Korean dishes like Ganheong and Dasik that are prepared using pine pollen. If you are curious as to what this tastes like, visit pollenranch.com for recipes with pollen.
- Many arthropods eat and rely on pollen as a food source, including Heliconius butterflies (which you can see in the Wings of the Tropics), many bees, mites, beetles, and many others.
Heliconius butterfly eating pollen.
Now that your appreciation for pollen has grown, how can we live in better harmony with it?
- Know that grasses or trees, which rely on wind dispersal, produce large amounts of lightweight pollen. However, feel free to smell as many colorful and fragrant flowers. They rely on insects to spread their pollen and, as a result, produce heavier pollen that is less likely to land on you and blow in the wind.
- Be aware of the times of the year when pollen is more prevalent. Tree pollens are often produced in early spring and grass pollens are usually produced in early summer. Windy or dry days increase the likelihood of pollen being in the air. However, calm or rainy days keep the pollen on the ground and away from you. There are many helpful websites and apps that look at what plant species is producing pollen and what the weather conditions are to provide you with a risk assessment.
- Proactively use allergy medication and take a decongestant. Given that many of us don’t want to limit our exploration of the great outdoors (and here at Butterfly Pavilion, we would strongly advise you to get outside as often as possible!), you can easily prevent and manage symptoms as they occur.
- Enjoy local honey. It's often said that eating local, raw honey, which contains pollen from the local environment, may reduce allergies. Though this is still being assessed in scientific studies, what we do know is that honey is high in antioxidants, which are great for overall health, and that honey can be very helpful in soothing cough symptoms you may be experiencing during allergy season. Our partner, Rice's Honey, is a great option here in Colorado!
Want to learn more about our native plants in Colorado and what you can do to conserve them? Visit Butterfly Pavilion today to grow in your appreciation of the great outdoors. Click here to learn about habitat gardening.