Riverdave’s Journal - March 2011


Along with April flowers comes April pollen, especially pine pollen.  Yellowy, grainy and sticky, it blankets everything exposed to the outdoors air.  Few of us enjoy its descent, many find it irritating to eyes, nose, throat and lungs. 


Although we are likely to suffer more from the smaller pollen grains of hardwood tree species, pine pollen is more visible.  If one lives in a neighborhood with surrounding pines, frequent dustings and sweepings of windows and porches are quite in order this time of year.


Pollen counts are measured in terms of the total number of actual grains per cubic meter. They are captured on a sticky plate, dyed and then counted under a microscope.  In Durham, an average daily reading in the first week of April is around 1000. Last year’s abrupt warming after an usually cold winter pushed the 2010 pollen index to over 3000 on several occasions. 


At times like this, only a good rain will settle the pollen and clear the air.  Though often uncomfortable, I find our annual pine pollen inundation to be one of the most fascinating events in our seasonal calendar and I seek ways to align with it.


Pollen is an issue of exchange between what are known as the male and female cones of the pine tree.  Smaller, soft male cones of an inch or less produce pollen that is transported on a dry, warm and windy day to the larger, receptive and prickly female cones. 


This fertilization produces numerous pine seeds and thus the next generation is launched.  These small seeds are very nutritious for birds, animals and humans and can contain up to a third of their weight in protein.  Of the 115 species of pines worldwide, pine nuts are gathered for human consumption in about 20 species.  


But does the gift of the pine tree end with the nut?  I have discovered the goodness of pine needle tea.  Other folks are finding that pine pollen is a nutritional food as well. Many cultures around the world have traditions of consuming pine pollen, both as a nutritive food and as a natural medicine.  But it is difficult to sort out all the modern advertising claims about the alleged benefits of pine pollen.


There does remain a solid tradition of taking pine pollen to reduce or reverse the effects of  what might be called andropause - a mid to late life condition in men of slowly dropping testosterone levels. This hormonal change results in a loss of energy and concentration which can bring on depression.  


So might there be some middle aged men out there, willing to set out pollen collection bags this season?  The vitamin and mineral profiles of both pine pollen and needles look quite impressive to me. And testosterone in its natural and organic form is important for women as well.


Pine cones have served as a sacred symbol of human enlightenment.  The third eye of Asian esoteric tradition is claimed to be located in an area that is near the pineal gland.  Shaped like and named after the pine cone, this small organ in the brain produces hormones that regulate waking and sleeping patterns and various seasonal functions.  


And pine trees are one of the most ancient groups of plants on the planet, having been around on earth three times longer than flowering plants.  When the female cone is examined upside down, one can find spirals of seed scales in a perfect Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the previous two.


Henry David Thoreau reflected the importance of the pine tree when he stated, “Generally speaking, the political news, whether domestic or foreign, might be written today for the next ten years, with sufficient accuracy. Most revolutions in society have no power to interest, still less to alarm us; but tell me that our rivers are drying up, or the genus pine dying out in the country, and I might attend.”  


In Durham County we have three species of native pines - the shortleaf, virginia and loblolly.  Across the state of North Carolina we find a total of eight species.  At least one community has made the release of pine pollen a annual celebration. 


The Palustris Festival in Moore County is now an annual, early spring event that  celebrates the long leaf pine, the state tree of North Carolina.  Palustris is the latin botanical name for this species of pine. The idea of observing a spring pollen event sure makes a lot more sense to me than the Easter Bunny!


Photo by RIverdave: collecting pollen from a loblolly pine