Pollen, under a microscope, looks vaguely like the plans for the Death Star in a galaxy far, far away. It’s a fitting comparison since, at this time of year, the Dark Side bears down fully on us here in the Lowcountry.
As annoying as it is — and as miserable as we are — pollen is still a vital component of the plant reproduction process. Read that: No pollen, no trees. No trees, no oxygen. That’s a simplified explanation, of course, and there is a lot more science involved that goes beyond basic biology.
The question we’re more concerned with here is why so much?
It came up in conversation recently with a visitor and resident of Greenwood.
“We have pollen up there, but it’s not nearly as bad as it is here,” he said.
Welcome to Beaufort — where if it can happen, it will happen.
A geographic map on www.pollen.com shows that Beaufort right now has a higher pollen count than Columbia, which is itself higher than Greenville.
So while our Greenwood visitor’s observation might be correct, to entomologist and South Carolina Forestry Commission Forest Health Program Coordinator David Jenkins, it’s not a huge concern.
“There’s nothing in the atmosphere standing out to distinguish you guys,” said Jenkins.
While that “non-distinguishing,” like a non-habit forming antihistamine, should provide some relief, our eyes don’t deceive us at this time of year. There are always plenty of warnings about avoiding yellow snow, but we don’t worry about that here as much as we do avoiding the yellow rain puddles.
The rain itself helps knock down the pollen from the trees and out of the air so that the particles, while initially in higher concentration, don’t end up moving so easily. Again, it’s all very scientific and clearly above my pay grade to explain. What is easily understood is that plants release more pollen in warm, dry weather in the early morning hours.
So do we stay indoors praying for rain until Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain make it back into the rotation?
The good news is that our palms and palmettos are not wind-pollinating trees. The bad news is that most everything else — including the abundant spartina around our salt marshes –— is.
You have probably noticed the pine pollination already. Jenkins said those trees “tend to produce pollen before others” and is the type we eventually wash off of our cars. But now the oaks are starting as well. Soon the grasses will hit peak and if you have willow or hickory or walnut trees, they’ll all pile on with the pollen production.
According to Jenkins, pine trees have a steady output of pollen every year, but oaks are a little more variable depending on the weather. But there we start to see our problem. We probably have more neighborhoods and businesses named for oaks and pines than all of Greenwood County has trees. Most of the live oaks here, as Jenkins also pointed out, are of the “hardy” variety.
Hardiness is a trait of pollen, as well. It can survive for thousands of years in geologic sediments and come unearthed fully intact. I should have know. I knew it: pollen and Keith Richards will outlive us all.
For now, keep the tissues and antihistamine handy.
And keep pretending visitors to Beaufort don’t notice traces of the Death Star all around us.
Ryan Copeland is a Beaufort native. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.