The pollenocalypse is upon us.

As loblolly pines engage in their rapturous annual pollination, clouds of yellow snow billow in the air and coat every surface from cars to porches to your precious pet’s paws. Maybe you’re a nature lover, but if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wondered as your windshield wipers smear golden dust across the glass: why does there have to be so goddamned much of it? And–more importantly–when will it go away? 

North Carolina State University forestry professor Robert Bardon says the pollen cycle began in March and has yet to reach maximum yellowing. 

“It is probably going to reach peak production here in the next week and it will taper off fairly quickly after that,” Bardon says. 

Part of the reason it’s so prominent right now on–well, everything–is that the Triangle hasn’t seen significant rainfall since March 31. That’s expected to change this weekend, but worry not, the yellow snow will return.

Loblolly pollen has a large smooth grain, which, in addition to sticking to everything, makes it more visible. Loblolly pines and oak trees depend on the wind to disperse their pollen from the species’ male flower to the female flower for reproduction. However, each pollen particle has an astronomically low chance of actually fertilizing another plant, so loblolly has evolved to literally coat every surface with its tree sperm.

“It’s a random chance that they connect, so plants produce a lot of pollen just to increase the probability of fertilization,” Bardon says. “Not all of it, obviously, is going to land on another plant–just look at our cars, our sidewalks, our street. They are all turning yellow under the current pollen production we’re seeing– but it’s a mechanism that trees have evolved and adapted to put as much pollen out so they have success.” 

Other than helping trees make more trees, I wondered what other ecological purpose pollen serves. Bees, for example, consume nectar from the flowers they help pollinate, forming a symbiotic relationship.

But pollen, it turns out, really only functions to spawn more trees. Bardon says he isn’t sure if it directly benefits other species.

After pollen season ebbs, Bardon says those with allergies must face their truest nemeses: grass and ragweed pollen, stronger irritants that will persist throughout the summer.

“Plants flower at different times throughout the year so we move really from pollen season to pollen season,” Bardon says. “The only times it goes away is winter.”

Your best bet for protecting yourself and your home from pollen is to take off your shoes upon entering the home and consider a change of clothes depending on when and how long you’ve been out. Pollen production tends to be highest earlier in the day, Bardon says, so the later you go out the less you’ll be exposed. 

While annoying, Bardon says the yellow snow is necessary for life as we know it. The natural order literally hangs in the balance: no pollen, no plants, no critters, no us. 

“Without it, we just wouldn’t have our food system,” Bardon explained. “We’re so dependent on these plants and our system for us to survive and thrive as a society. Without the pollen, we just wouldn’t be in existence.”

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