Campbell Vaughn: Pollen is actually a good thing

Plants have a remarkable mechanism to guarantee reproduction. Unlike animals, which are free to roam about and seek mates, plants are rooted to one spot and need help to reproduce.

 

Pollination is the process that allows plants to reproduce sexually with other plants over large areas. Pollination is where the substance of pollen is transferred from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of the same flower, or to a different flower of the same species. Some plants are self-pollinated or wind-pollinated, but most depend on insects, birds, bats and other organisms, collectively referred to as pollinators to transport the pollen for them. Successful reproduction in more than 90 percent of the 250,000 flowering plant species relies on pollination. More than 100,000 varieties of insects, including bees, moths, butterflies, beetles and flies, serve as pollinators, as do at least 1,035 species of vertebrates, including birds, mammals and reptiles.

The availability of native pollinators is as important as moisture, sunlight and soil fertility to the reproductive success of nearly half the world’s flowering plants. Animals can transfer pollen from one flower to another more efficiently as they search for food.

Insects are the most common animal pollinators. They have physical characteristics that make them extremely efficient at locating flowers and transferring pollen from one flower to another. The male parts of a flower are called the stamens and at the tip of them are anthers. During breeding season, the anther releases pollen and it is picked up by the wind or an animal and delivered to the female parts of the flower called the pistil. The pollen fertilizes the female and produces fruit. The seed comes from the fruit.

So how does this microscopic pollen get to the correct place? That is what is so fascinating about pollination. I like to think of it like my 8-year-old playing in the mud. How is it possible to get mud inside your underwear, ears, nostrils and boots and then bring it in the house to spread to unimaginable locations? As pollinating animals are out doing their daily routine, they get pollen all over themselves and spread it everywhere they go.

The more the animals are out spreading, the more likely the pollen will end up in a tiny spot called the pistil of a flower. Of course, the animals that are pollinating specific plants usually have a symbiotic relationship with that plant.

The nectar the plant produces may be a food source or the makeup of the plant will be a good place for shelter. That relationship keeps the pollinating animal hanging around that specific plant and increases the chance for pollination to occur.

Why does Augusta turn yellow in the spring? Wind pollenation.

Pine trees are the reason. Since pines are only pollinated by wind and we are loaded down with pine trees, there are a lot of seeds to be fertilized. Pine trees produce copious amounts of pollen to increase their reproductive odds. The March winds help this process much to the delight of our local car washes. Other wind pollinators are corn (the Native American Indians called it maize) and in the fall the super allergen ragweed. All of our grasses and a lot of our common weeds are also wind pollinated.

Insect pollinators play a significant role in producing more than 150 food crops in the United States including apples, alfalfa, almonds, blueberries, broccoli, cucumbers, peaches, soybeans, strawberries, kiwis, melons, onions, pears, plums and squash. Healthy pollinator populations increase the amount and quality of the fruit produced, and helps make fruit larger as well. The annual value of all pollinators (exclusive of managed honeybees) to U.S. agriculture is estimated between $4.1 billion and $6.7 billion. To say pollinators are vital to agriculture would be an understatement. Every third bite of food we eat comes from a plant that depends on insect pollinators.

There is evidence that the health and populations of many pollinator species are in decline. This poses a significant threat to biodiversity, global food webs and human health. You can create pollinator friendly gardens to preserve native pollinator populations and enjoy the beauty and interest they provide.

When planning a pollinators’ garden, include a variety of annuals, perennials and shrubs. Plant nectar- and pollen-rich flowers. Choose plants with a diversity of colors, shapes and sizes to attract more pollinators and encourage them to make your garden their home.

Planting large groups of flowers of the same color or kind together attracts pollinators better than single flowers scattered through the garden. Annuals would include cosmos, impatiens, marigolds, petunia, basil, dill, fennel, zinnia and sunflower. Perennials would include aster, black-eyed susan, goldenrod, mint, milkweed, salvia and verbena. Pollinator hosts for pollinators in shrubs would include abelia, butterfly bush, lantana, buckeye, Virginia sweetspire, beautyberry and yaupon holly.

Some of these sources provide food and over-wintering places for eggs and larva. Provide water for your animal helpers. Pollinators such as butterflies will gather and sip at shallow pools, mud puddles, shallow bird baths and saucers filled with water.

Avoid using broad-spectrum herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. Your pollinators’ garden should be a pesticide-free space since many pesticides will kill them. Herbicides that eliminate weeds will also eliminate many food sources, hiding places and nesting places for native pollinators. The pollinators’ garden is a good place to let the garden go wild. Your garden may look messy to some, but to the pollinators it looks like home.

Reach Campbell Vaughn, the agriculture and natural resources cooperative extension agent for Richmond County, by e-mailing augusta@uga.edu.

 

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