When Sex & Allergies Collide

When the Yankees take on your pollen count, you know the joke’s on you.

Houston’s pollen count — 2536 spores for oak trees alone — led the nation last week.

That translates into more sneezers and wheezers in the Bayou City than anywhere else in America.

Nowadays on my daily walks, I see sights like this pile of oak tree pollen on every sidewalk and driveway. Emphasis on every sidewalk, every driveway. For four miles.

These piles congregate to pollinate. In other words, it’s plant sex.

Holy moly, are they promiscuous!

The yellow wormy, stringy things are called catkins, also known as the flowering male of the tree. They morph into pollen then ride the wind, hunting receptors known as stigmas and pistils (the flowering female of the tree).

When male pollen grains meet female flower stigmas, voila! Acorns (as in: nuts!) sometime result.

That Mother Nature recreates this act every spring amazes, in and of itself. But that She, concurrently, creates allergic misery for so many of us humans strikes me as the epitome of irony.

Who’s in charge, you say?

Copyright, Sig McKenna Izbrand

My San Antonio friend Sig McKenna Izbrand dubs this year’s agony “Pollengedden.”

One photo from her backyard illustrates why.

Would you want to swim in those inviting waters after seeing that line of pollen?

The line resembles a crossing-of-the-Rubicon of sorts: what’s in the water, what can I not see? 

What’s a RoadBroad to do?

Pack eyedrops, an extra wad of tissues plus sore throat drops then hit the sidewalk.

Sagging senior thighs outrank four miles of sniffles.

Ball of Beauty…or Beast?

The sight at the top of the hill caught my eye. 

How many bird’s nests in that tree?

Walking closer, I notice it’s not bird nests I see.

Those are amalgams of twigs, needles, sticks, and gray grassy things clumped together in round balls, all nestled atop bare tree branches.

I walk this path every day, and have for seven years.

How did I never see this?

A second question springs forth: what is this T.h.i.n.g.? 

My writer mind imagines an alien deposit left every Tuesday after midnight. 

Ah, Story begins. I smile.

Four miles and five Siri e‑mails later, I arrive home.

Google informs the mass is ball moss, or tillandsia recurvata. Botanists call it an epiphyte—fancy way of saying it’s a non-parasitic plant that lives on other plants. More bromeliad than moss; a percher, not a sapper. Translation: ball moss sits on tree branches but never sucks away its host.

Some people disagree, claiming ball moss kills every tree it nests.

I don’t care. I see beauty lurking in these branches. This tree carried 45 ball moss clumps. At least where I stopped counting. 

Some nests looked massive, others teeny as embryos. To my virgin-noticing-nature-eyes, each pom-pom appeared glorious.

I looked down and cheered. An orphaned wad lay on the ground. The sticks felt spiky and sharp but strong. The natural world excels. Again.

At home, I placed the ball moss in a vase. Within weeks, it b‑l-o-o-m-e‑d. To my endless surprise and utter delight. Melanie and home-grown flowers = a first.

Our most recent Yule featured ball moss as the table centerpiece. It lasted from Christmas and well past New Year’s Day.

The petals eventually devolved into white wispy things. Carrying them outside one windy afternoon was not a good idea.

I waved them away then realized three things ball moss taught me:

My thumb’s not black.

Growth offers pleasant possibility and an expanded life, especially for a strong ego.

Noticing nature changes a life.

Poet Mary Oliver nailed it with this: “there are moments when the veil seems almost to lift and we understand what the earth is meant to mean to us.”

I’ve held onto this story for three months, awaiting Spring’s arrival. Now, she’s waking up, winking green in our oak trees.

She’s also birthing yellow tree pollen. Which delivers allergy agony.

That’s next week’s blog post. Today, I sniffle, dab my eyes and walk on, watching as beautiful ball moss disappears into nature’s arms.