A Few Fun Facts About Pollen

Sexual reproduction in vascular plants requires producing and transporting pollen grains – the male gametophytes or sperm cells of a plant. These reproductive cells must make their way to the egg cells in or order to form seeds – plants in embryo. The movement of pollen is something we can all observe. It’s happening all around us on a regular basis. Any time a seed-bearing plant (also known as a spermatophyte) develops mature cones or flowers, pollen is on the move. Pollen is a ubiquitous and enduring substance and a fascinating subject of study. In case you don’t believe me, here are a few fun facts.

Bee covered in pollen – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Pollen is as diverse as the species that produce it. Pollen grains are measured in micrometers and are so tiny that the only reason we can see them with the naked eye is because they are often found en masse. Yet they are incredibly diverse in size, shape, and texture, and each plant species produces its own unique looking pollen. With the help of a good microscope, plants can even be identified simply by looking at their pollen. See images of the pollen grains of dozens of plant species here and here.

Pollen helps us answer questions about the past. Because pollen grains are so characteristic and because their outer coating (known as exine) is so durable and long-lasting, studying pollen found in sediments and sedimentary rocks helps us discover all sorts of things about deep time. The study of pollen and other particulates is called palynology. Numerous disciplines look to palynology to help them answer questions and solve mysteries. Its even used in forensics to help solve crimes. Criminals should be aware that brushing up against a plant in bloom may provide damning evidence.

Pollen oddities. While all pollen is different, some plants produce particularly unique pollen. The pollen grains of plants in the orchid and milkweed families, for example, are formed into united masses called pollinia. Each pollinium is picked up by pollinators and transferred to the stigmas of flowers as a single unit. A number of other species produce other types of compound pollen grains. The pollen grains of pines and other conifers are winged, and the pollen grains of seagrass species, like Zostera spp., are filamentous and said to hold the record for longest pollen grains.

The pollinia of milkweed (Asclepias spp.) look like the helicopter-esque fruits of maple trees. photo credit: wikimedia commons

Pollen tube oddities. In flowering plants, when pollen grains reach the stigma of a compatible flower, a vegetative cell within the grain forms a tube in order to transport the regenerative cells into the ovule. This tube varies in length depending on the length of the flower’s style. Because corn flowers produce such long styles (also know as corn silk), corn pollen grains hold the record for longest pollen tube, which can measure 12 inches or more. Species found in the mallow, gourd, and bellflower families produce multiple pollen tubes per pollen grain. Hence, their pollen is said to be polysiphonous.

Pollen is transported in myriad ways. Plants have diverse ways of getting their pollen grains where they need to be. Anemophilous plants rely on wind and gravity. They produce large quantities of light-weight pollen grains that are easily dislodged. Most of this pollen won’t make it, but enough of it will to make this strategy worth it. Hydrophilous plants use water and, like wind pollinated plants, may produce lots of pollen due to the unpredictably of this method. Some hydrophilous plants transport their pollen on the surface of the water, while others are completely submerged during pollination.

Employing animals to move pollen is a familiar strategy. Entomophily (insect pollination) is the most common, but there is also ornithophily (bird pollination) and chiropterophily (bat pollination), among others. Plants that rely on animals for pollination generally produce pollen grains that are sticky and nutritious. They attract animals using showy flowers, fragrance, and nectar. The bodies of pollinating insects have modifications that allow them to collect and transport pollen. Certain bees, like honey bees and bumblebees, have pollen baskets on their hind legs, while other bees have modified hairs called scopae on certain parts of their bodies.

Pollen is edible. Some animals – both pollinating and non-pollinating – use pollen as a food source. Animals that eat pollen are palynivores. Bees, of course, eat pollen, but lots of other insects do, too. Even some spiders, which are generally thought of as carnivores, have been observed eating pollen that gets trapped in their webs.

Pollen is thought to be highly nutritious for humans as well, and so, along with being taken as a supplement, it is used in all sorts of food products. To collect pollen, beekeepers install pollen traps on their beehives that strip incoming worker bees of their booty. Pollen from various wind pollinated plants, like cattails and pine trees, are also collected for human consumption. For example, a Korean dessert called dasik is made using pine pollen.

pine pollen – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Pollen makes many people sick. Hay fever is a pretty common condition and is caused by an allergy to wind-borne pollen. This condition is also known as pollinosis or allergic rhinitis. Not all flowering plants are to blame though, so here is a list of some of the main culprits. Because so many people suffer from hay fever, pollen counts are often included in weather reports. Learn more about what those counts mean here.

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Year of Pollination: Botanical Terms for Pollination, part two

“The stage is set for reproduction when, by one means or another, compatible pollen comes to rest on a flower’s stigma. Of the two cells within a pollen grain, one is destined to grow into a long tube, a pollen tube, that penetrates the pistil’s tissues in search of a microscopic opening in one of the ovules, located in the ovary. … The second of a pollen grain’s cells divides to become two sperm that move through the pollen tube and enter the ovule.” – Brian Capon, Botany for Gardeners

“Once pollination occurs, the next step is fertilization. Pollen deposited on the sticky stigma generates a fine pollen tube that conveys the sperm through the style to the ovary, where the ovules, or eggs, have developed. After fertilization, the rest of the flower parts wither and are shed as the ovary swells with seed development.” – Rick Imes, The Practical Botanist

Pollination tells the story of a pollen grain leaving an anther by some means – be it wind, water, or animal – and finding itself deposited atop a stigma. As long as the pollen and stigma are compatible, the sex act proceeds. In other words, the pollen grain germinates. One of the pollen grain’s cells – the tube nucleus – grows down the length of the style, forming a tube through which two sperm nuclei can travel. The sperm nuclei enter the ovary and then, by way of a micropyle, enter an ovule. Inside the ovule is the female gametophyte (also referred to as the embryo sac). One sperm nucleus unites with the egg nucleus to form a zygote. The remaining sperm nucleus unites with two polar nuclei to form a triploid cell which becomes the endosperm. The sex act is complete.

The illustration on the left includes the cross-section of a pistil showing the inside the ovary where pollen tubes have made their way to the ovules. The illustration on the right shows pollen grains germinating on a stigma and their pollen tubes begining to work their way down the style. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The illustration on the left includes the cross section of a pistil showing the inside of the ovary where pollen tubes have made their way to the ovules. The illustration on the right shows pollen grains germinating on a stigma and pollen tubes as they work their way down the style. (image credit: wikimedia commons)

The zygote divides by mitosis to become an embryo. The endosperm nourishes the development of the embryo. The ovule matures into a seed, and the ovary develops into a fruit. During this process, the remaining parts of the flower wither and fall away. In some cases, certain flower parts remain attached to the fruit or become part of the fruit. The flesh of an apple, for example, is formed from the carpels and the receptacle (the thickened end of a flower stem – peduncle – to which the parts of a flower are attached).

As the seed matures, the endosperm is either used up or persists to help nourish the embryonic plant after germination. Mature seeds that are abundant in endosperm are called albuminous. Examples include wheat, corn, and other grasses and grains. Mature seeds with endosperm that is either highly reduced or absent are called exalbuminous – beans and peas, for example. Certain species – like orchids – do not produce endosperm at all.

The cross section of a corn kernel showing the endosperm and the embryo (image credit: Encyclopedia Britannica Kids)

The cross section of a corn kernel showing the endosperm and the embryo (image credit: Encyclopedia Britannica Kids)

It is fascinating to consider that virtually every seed we encounter is the result of a single pollen grain making its way from an anther to a stigma, growing a narrow tube down a style, and fertilizing a single ovule. [Of course there are always exceptions. Some plants can produce seeds asexually. See apomixis.] Think of this the next time you are eating corn on the cob or popcorn – each kernel is a single seed – or slicing open a pomegranate to reveal the hundreds of juicy seeds inside. Or better yet, when you are eating the flesh or drinking the milk of a coconut. You are enjoying the solid and liquid endosperm of one very large seed.

Much more can be said about pollination and the events surrounding it, but we’ll save that for future posts. The “Year of Pollination” may be coming to an end, but there remains much to discover and report concerning the subject. For now, here is a fun video to help us review what we’ve learned so far:

 

Also, take a look at this TED talk: The Hidden Beauty of Pollination by Louie Schwartzberg

And finally, just as the “Year of Pollination” was coming to an end I was introduced to a superb blog called The Amateur Anthecologist. Not only did it teach me that “anthecology” is a term synonymous with pollination biology, it has a great series of posts called “A Year of Pollinators” that showcases photographs and information that the author has collected for various groups of pollinators over the past year. The series includes posts about Bees, Wasps, Moths and ButterfliesFlies, and Beetles, Bugs, and Spiders.

Year of Pollination: Hand Pollinating Cucurbits

Because of their large, open, unisexual flowers, plants in the gourd family are perfect for practicing hand pollination. There are several species in this family that are commonly grown in gardens, and all can be hand pollinated. Hand pollination of cucurbits is most often done when there are problems with pollination (lack of pollinators, etc.) or for seed saving purposes (i.e. to ensure that a variety breeds true). It can also be done just for fun, and that’s mostly what this post is about.

But first, if your goal is to save seeds and maintain the integrity of the varieties you are growing, there are a few things to keep in mind. Cucumbers, melons, and watermelons are all different species (Cucumis sativus, Cucumis melo, and Citrullus lanatus respectively), so you won’t have to worry about crosses between these crops. You will, however, have to worry about crosses between different varieties within individual species. So, for example, if you are growing multiple varieties of cucumbers – or if your close neighbors are also growing cucumbers – you should hand pollinate. Summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins, and some gourds are members of at least four species in the genus Cucurbita (C. pepo, C. maxima, C. mixta, and C. moschata). There is a possibility of hybridization between some of these species as well as between varieties within the same species, so precautions should definitely be taken when saving seeds for these crops. This can mean, along with hand pollination, placing bags over flowers so that bees are unable to bring in pollen from “the wrong” plants.

There are plenty of great resources about saving seeds that offer much more detail than I have gone into here, one of which is a book by Marc Rogers called Saving Seeds. Consult such resources if you would like to try your hand at seed saving. It’s easier than you might think, and it’s very rewarding.

Regardless why you are hand pollinating your cucurbits, the first step in the process is differentiating a male flower from a female flower. This is simple. Female flowers in the family Cucurbitaceae have inferior ovaries, meaning that the ovary sits below the area where the petals and other flower parts are attached. The ovaries are quite pronounced and resemble a miniature fruit. The male flowers lack ovaries, so instead are simply attached to a slender stem. You can also observe the sex organs themselves – male flowers have stamens, female flowers have carpels. Male and female flowers may also be located on different areas of the plant and may open at different times of the day. All that being said, the most obvious indication is the “mini-fruit” at the base of the flower or lack thereof.

Cucurbit flowers: male (top) and female (bottom) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Cucurbit flowers: male (top two photos) and female (bottom two photos) – image credit: wikimedia commons

Once you have identified your flowers, you have a limited amount of time to hand pollinate them. It’s best to find flowers that are just starting to open, as the female flowers may only be receptive for as little as 24 hours. You can use a cotton swab to gather pollen from the male flower, or you can simply pluck the flower from the plant, remove the petals, and touch the pollen-loaded anthers to the stigmas of a female flower. Either way, you must get the pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of a flower as that is the essence of pollination. Simply put, it’s plant sex. Play some soft jazz while you do it if you want to.

A honeybee in a squash flower

A female squash flower with honeybee inside

A honeybee covered in pollen drinking the nectar of a female squash flower

Honeybee covered in pollen drinking the nectar of a female squash flower

As with saving seeds, there are a lot of resources out there explaining the details of hand pollinating cucurbit flowers, including this guide from Missouri Botanical Garden and the following You Tube Video.

 

While we are on the subject of cucurbit flowers, it should be noted that squash flowers are edible and can be prepared in a variety of ways, as described in this post at The Kitchn. Just another reason to be impressed by this amazing group of plants.