Published on 03/31/97

Atchew! Pollen Season Has Arrived in Georgia

It's the wheezing, sneezing, pollen season.

"The pollen is here," said Kim Coder, a University of Georgia Extension Service forester. "We're running 10 to 14 days ahead of normal."

The usual February cold snap that often delays pollen production didn't come this year.

"We went right from cold January to spring," Coder said. "That didn't give us the normal slowing in the trees' flower production."

It also threw Mother Nature's timing off.

"The environment didn't push some species along as rapidly as others," Coder said. "Right now, we have several types of tree pollen that don't usually produce together, piling up on one another.

"The pines, which produce the most visible pollen, are a bit behind, so their pollen season may be extended," he said. "Those trees that cause the most allergy problems -- oak, walnut or hickory -- they're out and should be over with soon."

In the South, where pollen season is as sure as spring, summer, winter and fall, we just accept it as a fact of life. But what exactly is it?

"Pollen is the male part of the life cycle in a tree," Coder said. "In pines it comes from a male flower, sometimes called pollen cones."

A close look reveals what looks like a miniature pine cone. They produce little packets containing half of the genetic component of the tree.

"Usually pollen is extremely light and airborne," Coder said. "Some have wings. Other pollen is sticky and is moved by insects."

The trees with showy flowers have pollen normally moved by insects, not the air.

"Unless you're sniffing each flower, you can't blame showy flowering trees for allergies," Coder said.

It's the tiny flowers you don't see -- like those of oaks, walnuts, hickories, willows, poplars and birches -- that annoy your allergies.

"They float and blow around in the air and land on the tiny flowers that are the female portion, and you get a viable fruit or seed," Coder said.

Not all trees have pollen. Some have been genetically altered not to flower.

"But in nature," Coder said, "all trees will try to reproduce, and therefore, all mature trees will produce pollen."

Some produce the male and female parts in the same flower. Others produce male and female flowers on separate branches.

"Some trees, like willows, cottonwoods, persimmons or hollies, have separate male and female trees," Coder said. "If you have a mature holly tree with no berries, it's a male."

Not only is the thick yellow pollen you see now annoying to your eyes and nose, but it's also bothersome to your car's paint.

"You don't want pollen to build up on painted surfaces," Coder said. "It can damage the paint surface, because it has a good amount of nitrogen in it, and bacteria and fungi can consume it if it piles up."

The bacteria and fungi produce organic acids that can etch painted surfaces. The grit of the pollen can also scratch the surface. Coder recommends rinsing your car with water often during the pollen season.

While the warm weather tempts us to throw open the doors and windows and air out the house, Coder says, wait.

"Keep your house closed up during the day to keep pollen out if you have allergies," he said. "The magic of spring is here, and the trees are trying to get the pollen out."

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.