In the Forest, Love is in the Air

Jack Savage | June 5, 2010

Like most of you, I woke up last Monday wondering why it seemed so foggy outside. When I opened the door to let the dogs out and inhaled a big gulp of holiday air, I realized it was not foggy but smoky. Darned smoky. And while that usually means a neighbor has fired up a woodstove, it seemed far too warm for that. I hoped no one’s house or barn had burned.

As we know now, the “neighbor” with the fire was far to our north in Quebec, where lightning apparently ignited a series of 50 or more fires in a dry forest. An atypical wind out of the northeast brought the smoke from those fires across a large swath of New England, steeping our Memorial Day—not inappropriately, perhaps--in an eerie scented haze.

This brought to mind the infamous fires in the White Mountains of more than a century ago, when indiscriminate timber liquidation left behind thick slash that caught on fire and jettisoned smoke that was said to be visible as far away as Concord and Manchester. Frankly, I didn’t believe that story until I breathed in smoke from fires so far away that they have to be extinguished en francais. Wind knows no political boundary.

Also airborne in recent days is the voluminous pollen from our tallest forest friends, pinus strobus—which is the fancy name for eastern white pine trees. I walked out of the front doors of the pine-shrouded Forest Society headquarters in Concord one gusty day recently and could barely make out the parking area just a hundred feet away--thanks to a swirling curtain of yellow pollen.

Though it doesn’t typically cause hay fever, we all complain about how the pollen covers not just our cars but everything outside and in. On Alton Bay last weekend the accumulated pollen made the water look like the good folks at the Olde Bay Diner had whipped up the world’s largest batch of banana pudding.

But before we complain too loudly about the pervasive pine pollen, we should take a moment to understand it. The relatively fast-growing white pine has been a staple of our habitat, economy and lives ever since the King’s men claimed the biggest and best stems in the name of the crown for ships’ masts. Whether providing homes for wildlife (unharvested), or people (harvested), white pine remains today one of our most valuable species of tree. It is the only five-needle pine native to eastern North America—a factoid almost arcane enough to be a good baseball statistic.

Like many of us, it wants to reproduce. White pines are interesting in that they are monoecious, which means that both the male and female flowers are found on the same tree. Small yellow staminate, or male cones at branch tips generate the pollen, which fertilizes the light green pistillate, or female cones in which the seeds will mature.

In order to discourage inbreeding through self-pollination, the pollen producing bits are found toward the bottom of the tree and the seed producing bits are toward the top, and the pollen is carried by the wind—sometimes hundreds of miles. It’s kind of like sending your kids to an out-of-state college in hopes of improving the family gene pool.

Equally interesting is the fact that the seeds take more than a year to mature. Pollen is released in the spring, but the fertilized seeds will not be ready to drop for potential germination until late summer and autumn of the following year—it’s basically a two-year cycle.

Foresters sometimes attempt to use that knowledge to improve the odds of regenerating white pine on a woodlot. By scheduling a harvest in a seed year, scarifying the soil a bit, leaving behind some mature, well-formed seed trees and enough canopy to provide moderate shade, one might set the stage for the appearance of the next white pine generation.

Or not. As experienced forester George Frame notes, foresters are second only to pastors in their reliance on faith. Predicting future conditions can be iffy. Sometimes there’s little rain, lightning strikes, and fire takes hold.

 But while the imperfectly predictable process of wind-blown pollination may frustrate our attempts at influence, we can do this: keep forests as forests and let the cycles of regeneration continue. A sky full of pollen is a good thing.

 Jack Savage is the editor of Forest Notes: New Hampshire’s Conservation Magazine, published by the Society for the Protection of NH Forests. He can be reached via email at