Friday, February 25, 2011

Maple Pollen Photomicrography

Back when I was sorting out potential career paths, I seriously considered becoming a palynologist; that's why I was a biology major for a very short time, until becoming an English major and surprising next to nobody. Yes-- I considered dedicating vast portions of my mind to the study of pollen (and spores).

It still fascinates me, of course.

Some might wonder what good palynology is, or what kind of work a botanist that ridiculously specialized could find. It's actually quite important. Pollen is a crucial part of agriculture. Some aspects of the health of forests and other environments can be assessed through pollen samples. Archaeologists can find out what plants were cultivated or indigenous to an area by traces of pollen. Forensic scientists could solve a crime if pollen on an item of interest could be traced to a specific area. There are many other applications; archaeological palynology fascinated me the most.

Here is a blooming twig from a red maple tree (Acer rubrum). See the anthers? They're the little reddish things sticking out on the ends of the stamens. The pollen comes from inside the anthers. There's some yellowish pollen visible on the ones toward the bottom of the picture.This is some pollen magnified 40 times. On first glance, it looks much like the cedar pollen from my previous post. If I had an electron microscope, I'm sure there would be very obvious differences even in its basic appearance. However, one thing stood out almost immediately, that surprised me: the maple pollen, magnified 40 times, is about as big as the cedar pollen was, magnified 100 times. For some reason, I was expecting the maple pollen to be smaller; it doesn't bother me as much as cedar, so I hypothesized imaginatively that it was tiny and that cedar was big and malevolent. Of course, maple pollen isn't sticky the way cedar is-- that must have something to do with it.Here it is again, magnified 100 times. At this magnification, 19 cedar pollen grains fit in that circle of view with plenty of leftover space. That would be a tight squeeze, here.I'm not sure which pollen will come into season next-- but when it does, you'll find out what it looks like. ^_^

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Last Monday evening, I heard the frogs singing in the woods for the first time this spring. It's such a thin, silvery, growing sort of sound-- the sound of the woods coming back to life. In honor of that event, here is one of my all-time favorite poems, by one of my all-time favorite poets.

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I had forgotten how the frogs must sound
After a year of silence, else I think
I should not have ventured forth alone
At dusk upon this unfrequented road.

I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!


Monday, February 21, 2011

Cedar Pollen Photomicrography

Last spring, I brought you pictures of all the nice plants that begin to sprout in the woods near my house at this time of year. This spring, I bring you something a little more... sinister.

Starting today and ending in April or May, I will present photomicrographs of all the different types of pollen that clog the air in my corner of the world, as they make their appearances.

My chest imploded, this past weekend, or might as well have. I spent two days flopping around gasping like a fish trying to evolve. Today I've either gotten better or gotten used to it. I figured out pretty early on that there must be some pollen flying already. This week, Eastern Red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is the culprit.

Here is what a branch looks like, up close. From a distance, the tree has gold highlights.I picked a sprig of cedar and made the second-worst wet mount slide I had ever made in my life. Then I made a nicer one. In my defense, it's been a few years since I did any actual work with a microscope, and longer since I used it for fun. Here's some of the pollen, without the cover-slip on yet. What I discovered immediately is that cedar pollen is unpleasantly sticky, with that same aromatic sap that is all over the tree itself. Whenever I climb that tree, I get black sap and little stringy strips of bark all over my hands, and it takes rubbing alcohol to get it off satisfactorily. I believe that this causes the pollen to adhere itself to the insides of my lungs. Here are some grains at 40 times their real size.Here are the globules again, at 100 times larger than life. Only 100 times. Isn't that morbidly fascinating? They're enormous. And sticky.There is a higher magnification on my microscope, but it's for oil immersion. Hopefully I'll get better at taking pictures, so they won't come out so blurry next time. Feel free to print these out to pin up and use as dartboards. You get more points for lower magnification, because it's smaller.

Random biology anecdote of the day: my lab instructor three years ago pronounced the word nucleus, nuculus. This should be a crime. I have nothing further to say on that subject.

That's all for today, my dears. Tune in next time for Maple Pollen Photomicrography.