Becky Emerson Carlberg
It’s snowing! The back patio is covered in white petals as they descend from the two Bradford pear trees. At first glance, the trees produced a robust array of blooms this spring. Despite the freezing weather, the profusion of peach blossoms added touches of pink to the landscape. The old redbud has lower dead branches, but higher in the sky purple flowers open to meet the sun.
Herbs quickly send up green shoots. Embryonic leaves are now emerging on the trees. Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) waste no time. The male trees unfurl their thick red catkins to release pollen, while the female trees prepare their long, drooping locks of tiny green flowers. The female flowers bloom a few days later. In some poplar stands, females flower up to a month later. The wind does the work, sending male pollen to the receptive female sticky stigmas. Before you know it, poplar fluff is flying through the air. Cotton contains seeds. The mother tree has done its job. Contributes to being one of the tallest hardwoods in North America.
Bright yellow dandelions and purple violets hover above ground level. Bees and spring pollinators love these first flowers. The fragrant blossoms of the non-native autumn olive tree and the yellow tubes of the forsythia on the west side of the house attract their share of nectar eaters and pollen carriers. Let’s not forget the palynivores.
Don’t tell me you have. The palynivore is a pollen eater. Pollen is a rich nutrient not only sought after by bees, but also by wasps, mites, butterflies, moths, ants and beetles. The orb weaver spider loves pollen. Worldwide, two thousand species of birds feed on nectar and pollen. While there, they also make use of spiders and insects which also take advantage of the flowers. Although hummingbirds usually only drink nectar, the pollen remains attached to their beaks and tongues. The pollen grains are inadvertently swallowed, adding protein to the hummingbird’s sweet diet. Some bats use their thumb claws to cling to petals so they can stick their heads into flowers for supper and dinner. In Arizona and Mexico, the lesser long-nosed bat feeds on and pollinates giant saguaro cacti while Mexican long-tongued bats follow flowering agave plants north to arrive in Arizona in early the summer.
Bat flowers have certain characteristics. The large, bell-shaped flowers with large mouths often produce copious amounts of nectar and abundant pollen. The flowers give off a delicious scent of rancid meat or urine. Attractive. To bats.
Pollen, the ever so vital male part of the reproductive team, has some eclectic properties. The grains are generally double-walled. The vegetative cells inside (the intine) are surrounded by a tough protective outer layer (the exine). The pollen of each species or cultivar has a distinctive size, shape, color, texture, possible spines, and number of apertures. Apertures are thin, soft places in the hard pollen walls where the pollen tube can break through during fertilization. If you’ve ever watched CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) episodes, a long-lost body will eventually surface. The place or season it met its demise can be identified by the type of pollen.
Pollen grains can absorb water and break off, so pollination is more effective on dry days. Pollen can harbor viruses and parasites. Not a problem for humans, but a big problem for bees.
Pollen has been around for millions of years, since the evolution of flowering plants. When preserved in sedimentary layers of rocks, pollen can paint a picture of a region’s vegetation or climatic changes. Fossilized pollen was used to identify vegetation growing in eastern Oklahoma 5,000 years ago. Fresh pollen, depending on the species, can be stored for a few years if kept dry and cold. In the wild, pollen can last from less than two hours to three weeks.
The warm, sunny weather is not only perfect for pollination but also for plant growth. We need plants for oxygen and food. Returning home ravenous after drawing several tubes of my A-negative blood, I looked at the handful of herbal vitamins that usually precede breakfast, a meal I had yet to eat. Natural eye vitamins are jostling for space with joint vitamins, bone minerals and all the other esoteric health pills. It’s a wonder there’s room for real food.
Herbal supplements are derived from fruits, flowers, leaves, bark, seeds, and other plant parts. If capsules full of concentrated benefits aren’t for you, try a tablespoon of liquid supplement such as herbal tonics or apple cider vinegar. On the other hand, elixirs can contain plant extracts or oils in a mixture of water and sugar-based alcohol. In the Middle Ages, elixirs were thought to confer immortality. If you see someone still alive from the Middle Ages, ask them for their elixir.
My cholesterol and blood pressure should be amazing. They are. Surprisingly high. Bone density decreases. What is all this milk, cheese and ice cream for? I suppose I could curse my female European ancestors, including my grandmothers and my mother, with their tendency to disintegrate skeletons.
Vitamin D from the sun can come to the rescue. This self-made vitamin helps with calcium absorption, immunity, strong bones, muscles and heart. When you spend time outdoors encouraging your garden to grow or digging like crazy to plant that row of radishes, the sun stimulates the production of vitamin D in your skin. If you apply judicious amounts of sunscreen to exposed skin (because too much of a good thing like the sun can also cause problems), your vitamin D could be compromised. Time for a supplement. What is another vitamin added to your diet.
The simple fact of being outside chases away the slump. Gardening is a great way to keep in shape and get some vitamin D. Milkweed is lagging behind this year. Fayetteville, Arkansas and Norman, Oklahoma saw their first monarchs on April 4. Flowering plants, even in pots, will be welcome.