The Nature Nerd

Focus on: Spring flowers

Male flowers of a red maple. Submitted photo.

Male flowers of a red maple. Submitted photo.

April showers bring May flowers, they say. But, looking around, the Northwoods still seem to be lacking flowers. Where are they?

The flowers are out there! There are thousands. No, more; there are millions of flowers currently blooming in our Northwoods. Some of them are bright colored, too! The catch is most of them are tiny; they are not what you normally think of as flowers. Most are on trees. Maples, birches, and aspen currently are blooming, as are shrubs such as alder, hazel, and willow. All trees produce flowers, just as most other plants do. The flowers are just very small and go unnoticed by many, or are mistaken for buds.

The flowers on trees vary greatly from one species to another, and sometimes are variable even on a single species, depending of the gender of the tree. (Yes, some kinds of trees are either male or female.) Most Northwoods trees bloom early in the spring, or into early summer. Many species of trees depend on wind for pollination. Wind is not a very efficient method of pollination, so most trees produce massive amounts of pollen. Wind ends up blowing most of the pollen to places where it is not needed nor wanted (more on that later). Blooming in early spring prevents leaves from being barriers to pollen movement. There is so much pollen that sometimes on a windy day one can see clouds of pollen blowing from the trees. At other times, pollen can be seen floating on lakes, rivers, or puddles where the wind causes it to accumulate. Most pollen goes to waste.

Most types of plants, those with conspicuous flowers, are pollenated by insects. Insects such as bees carry pollen from one flower to another. This is a much more efficient method of pollination, a much higher percentage of the pollen from typical flowers hits the mark. Therefore, plants that are pollenated by insects produce much less pollen than wind-pollenated plants.

The flowers of trees, though tiny, are interesting to examine and sometimes even are pretty. But, some of the pollen they produce has an unfortunate habit of ending-up where it is not appreciated. By this I mean, in our noses and eyes. As I write this I am sniffling and my eyes itch. This is from the pollen of wind-pollenated trees, probably birch and alder. Isn’t it a cruel twist of fate that a nature nerd like me suffers from pollen allergies?! Yes, me too!

And wind pollenated trees are not the only guilty plants. Through the seasons there is a succession of wind-pollenated plants that bloom. It starts with the early blooming trees. Next are grasses. Then in late summer and fall comes the worst of all: ragweed. So, it goes! Sometimes it seems like we have two seasons here, winter and allergy season.

Despite all the pollen in the air—and a few sniffles and sneezes—going out into the Northwoods is worth it, at least for me. To anyone who goes slowly and observantly, there is so much to see! It is spring!

Jerry McCormick lives in Virginia, MN. He is a retired natural resources professional and is a self-described nature nerd.

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