Watching the squiggles fall

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I sat at my window this morning listening to the birds and watching the squiggles float from the oak trees. Of course squiggles isn’t the scientific name for these things that cover my deck and every other outdoor surface this time of year.

What I call squiggles are acutally catkins, definition – “catkin from the French for cat’s tail, is a longish, pendulous spiky thing that can be either delicate and beautiful or a bit wormy- looking.”

Apparently, oak trees have male and female catkins both on the same branch, (how convenient) which makes the tree monoecious. (Aren’t you impressed I know that big word?) Anyway, catkins are how oaks make baby oaks. Actually, the things we see lying in bunches on the sidewalk are the male catkins. They come in clusters with bumpy things that break apart and scatter like crazy. The female version is smaller and harder to see, but they are around just waiting for a willing male to blow by.

You see it’s, “the haphazard conjuncture of male and female catkins, a process dependent on wind” that brings about the production of acorns and ultimately new trees. Just to let you know, willows and birch trees also have catkins.

So while I thought I saw squiggles I’d need to sweep off the carport blowing all over the place, it was actually kind of tree sex taking place outside my window. Maybe that is why the birds sang so happily and the squirrels jumped up and down merrily. They get a kick out of seeing tree romance this time of year.

Unfortunately, people with allergies, and 20 out of every 100 have them, don’t get as much enjoyment from the trees attempt at procreation. Male catkins searching for a likely female catkin mate release millions of pollen grains into the air. However, only a few reach their intended target and the rest end up in human noses and throats. Moreover, sweeping them off patios, decks, chairs and other outdoor surfaces only spreads more of the problem. Not a good thing if you have a tree allergy. Best to let sleeping catkins stay where they land.

I learned it takes only 10 particles of oak pollen in a cubic meter of air to generate an allergic reaction. This year spring is a particularly amorous season for oak trees so they’re producing 3,000 to 6,000 particles per cubic meter. Oh those naughty oaks.

Not only are they sending out more pollen particles, they are doing it longer than most years because winter delayed the start of tree mating season. It is usually over by mid April, but this year the courting promises to stretch until May.

Of course, there are treatments for what the catkins cause in humans. There are medicines containing antihistamines to reduce symptoms. In addition, allergy experts say keep the windows closed and everything vacuumed and dusted to remove pollen from inside the house.

The bottom line is we have to live with the squiggly portion of spring for a bit longer. And though we humans sniff and sneeze our way through it, right outside my window those sexy oak trees enjoy one heck of a catkin-producing orgy.