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The Wonderful, Terrible World of Palynology

Have you ever stepped outside to a yellow porch or powder-laden car? Perhaps your runny nose or itchy eyes tell you spring is in the air. But just what is the substance swirling around the air that seems more irritant then welcome harbinger of warmth?

Pollen. (The study of which is called Palynology.)

What we experience as tiny grains of powdery substance are actually male microgametophytes of seed plants. Pollen grains have a hard coat made of sporopollenin that protects the gametophytes during the process of their movement from the stamens to the pistil of flowering plants or from the male cone to the female cone of coniferous plants. If pollen lands on a compatible pistil or female cone, it germinates, producing a pollen tube that transfers the sperm to the ovule containing the female gametophyte.

We may view pollen as a seasonal nuisance, but the plant world is, well, excited to reproduce. It can think of no more wonderful activity then for the male plants to spread its pollen far and wide.

But for those who suffer (more than 25 million Americans are allergic to pollen): tree pollen, which is in the air in spring; grass pollen, which is more of a summertime issue; or weed pollen, which is common in the fall, these small grains can trigger a plethora of terrible symptoms.

And if you listen to advertisers (of allergy medicine, of course) the proliferation of pollen is on the rise. You can read headlines like “Pollen Tsunami” “Hayfever Havoc” and the like.

In this post I’d like to consider just a few of the ways Americans have dealt with this ‘wonderful, terrible’ substance and offer some academic opinions. I am not an allergy sufferer – so I can’t possibly understand or offer any advice with particular remedies but I do have a son who grew into allergies – just about the time he was old enough to mow the lawn – so I’ve seen how much it can affect lifestyle choices.

* It’s important to note that not all plants come in male and female varieties. Many bear flowers of both sexes (like an oak tree), however some have flowers of only one sex and those are referred to as male or female. Female flowers contain ovaries that develop into fruit while male flowers bear pollen that fertilizes the female flowers.

Palynologists can make fascinating observations about the natural world through studying pollen, but most of us just wish it would go away. In fact, back as early as 1949, the United States Department of Agriculture published a yearbook entitled “TREES” recommending urban planners plant male street trees, because the males did not produce "litter." While this may have seemed like a good idea because it reduced street clean up, having only male trees has increased pollen counts in some areas.

On the website, Allergy Free Gardening, it notes: “Albuquerque, NM was successfully sued over the death of a local 6 year old boy, who is believed to have died after heavy exposure to the city-planted male junipers at the City Zoo. After this lawsuit, Albuquerque passed a Pollen Control Ordinance that forbids the sale or planting of certain plants, including cypress, male juniper and mulberry.”**

While there may be many factors in this young boy’s case, this is an example of the “law of unintended consequences.” In the social sciences, unintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences, unforeseen consequences, or accidents) are outcomes that are not the ones foreseen and intended by a purposeful action.

From an environmental standpoint – man tampers with his surroundings to improve them, but he ends up messing something else up.

This is obviously not an evil intent, it is simply a limitation. We can’t plan for all the variables. And it’s the reason we cannot play God.

According to WebMD: Tree pollens that trigger allergies tend to be very fine and powdery. The wind can carry them for miles. Inhaling even small amounts can trigger allergy symptoms. Here is the website’s list of trees that often set off allergies:

Ash, Aspen, Beech, Birch, Box elder, Cedar, Cottonwood, Elm, Hickory, Mountain elder, Mulberry, Oak, Pecan, Willow

People with tree pollen allergies sometimes assume that trees with colorful flowers -- like apple or cherry trees -- will trigger their symptoms. But flowering trees usually have bigger, stickier pollen that doesn't blow in the wind or cause symptoms.

Many naturalists are in favor of ingesting local pollens to build up an immunity to their negative reaction – i.e. allergic, inflammatory response, but the science on this matter has yet to support these claims.

For years, herbalists have touted bee pollen as an exceptionally nutritious food. They've even claimed it is a cure for certain health problems. Yet after years of research, scientists still cannot confirm that bee pollen has any health benefits.

Bee pollen contains vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, lipids, and protein. It comes from the pollen that collects on the bodies of bees. Bee pollen may also include bee saliva.

It's important to avoid confusing bee pollen with natural honey, honeycomb, bee venom, or royal jelly. These products do not contain bee pollen. Bee pollen is available at many health food stores. You may find bee pollen in other natural dietary supplements, as well as in skin softening products used for baby's diaper rash or eczema.

Before you take any natural product for a health condition, check with your doctor. Because just as avoiding tree mess seems to have increased urban pollen counts, eating too much of anything not intended for human consumption (remember the function of pollen) will certainly have a different set of unintended consequences. Bee wise.


"My Son, eat honey because it is good, And the honeycomb

which is sweet to your taste; So shall the knowledge

of wisdom be to your soul; If you have found it,

there is a prospect. And your hope will not

be cut off." Proverbs 24: 13-14

**Thomas Leo Ogren is the author of Allergy-Free Gardening (Random House Publishers) considered the “bible” for many landscape designers who wish to limit pollen exposure. His research on allergies caused by common landscape plants has been aired on ABC, NBC, and other major TV stations, and he’s been interviewed on radio programs across the world, including NPR, CBC, and the BBC.

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