Behold the Pine Pollen Apocalypse

It’s everywhere all at once, but don’t blame it when you sneeze.

If you live in the eastern part of Virginia, from the Piedmont to the shore, then you’ve almost certainly seen it. It coats your car, drifts through open windows, swirls in clouds on those windy, unseasonably warm afternoons between March and June, runs and pools with a sudden rainstorm.

It’s the pollenpocalypse, that yellow-green blizzard that blows in with the early spring and lingers, making car wash owners rub their hands in glee. They can thank Virginia’s native loblolly pine for the gift.

Scott Bachman is happy—indeed delighted—to talk about pines and pollen and gymnosperms and gametophytes and pretty much anything tree. A forester with the Virginia Department of Forestry, he says the loblolly is “ubiquitous,” the dominant native pine species in the coastal and Piedmont regions.

Naturally abundant, they’re also the favored pine for the commercial forestry industry in this part of the state, used in products from pressurized lumber to paper towels and even turning up in shredded cheese and ice cream in the form of cellulose. In short, there are a lot of loblolly pines.

Two further features of this tree add up to the pollen storm.

The first is that pines, unlike flowers, are wind-pollinated. And, Bachman notes, “You have to produce voluminous amounts of pollen when you are throwing it out into the wind and hoping it will fall on a female flower.”

The second feature is the pollen itself. The reason you see it is because pine pollen—relative to other pollen that might be blowing around at the same time—is huge. It’s visible; oh, so visible, to the naked eye, clinging to your porch furniture, dusting window sills, filming your skin on your morning run.

And if it seems like the pollenpocalypse goes on. And on. And on? That’s because “each individual tree is going to produce pollen at a different time,” explains Bachman. So the process of pine pollen production keeps rolling along for weeks. 

It’s easy to understand, then, how we are inclined to assume that the pollen we can see must be responsible for the onset of allergy season misery. But there, we are wrong. “Pine is the tree with the least number of people allergic to it,” explains Richmond allergist Robert Call, M.D. 

The theory is that what makes pine pollen much more visible than other pollen is also what makes it much less likely to be the culprit for your sniffling and sneezing. Because the pollen grains are bigger, it’s harder for them to “get up the nose” and cause problems.

But we make pine the fall guy for our troubles just because it is so visible. “What you are probably allergic to is an oak or maple or one of those other pollens that are out at the same time, but you don’t see,” says Bachman. “You just associate it with the pollen you can see.”

Nothing to Sneeze At

The loblolly pine gives us much more than spring pollen.

  • Pines are also important commercially, helping the state generate more than $23 billion annually from forestry. It’s so desirable, in fact, that the Virginia Department of Forestry hand-pollinates some trees on their own lands to produce premium seedlings. 

Loblolly pines can reach heights of 80–90 feet, and a healthy loblolly might live about 70 years, says Bachman. Longleaf pines, while far less common, are “the white oak of the pine species,” says Bachman. Slow-growing loblollies can live for hundreds of years. “It’s our longest-lived pine,” he notes.

Surprisingly, pines are considered a good investment. Bachman says a significant amount of commercial forestry land in Virginia is held by retirement funds and insurance companies. Even if trees aren’t a fast-turnover product, they are a relatively low-risk and reliably valuable product. For an infusion of fast cash, says Bachman, “they can cut this timber anytime.” 

The loblolly, and less common longleaf pine, have been key to the comeback of the rare red cockaded woodpecker in Virginia. These woodpeckers only nest in living trees, excavating a cavity for the purpose. And as luck (for the bird) would have it, when the pines get old, they are susceptible to red heart disease, which “makes the interior of the tree a little softer,” says Bachman, making it easier for the bird to make its nest cavity.

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue. 

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