Reflections in Nature: Scientists try to take over nature’s job of cross-pollination of plants

While writing this column, I heard on the news that a difficult season is predicted for those with spring allergies.

The unseasonal cold weather, which has refused to go away, has kept trees and plants dormant. However, the trees and plants will release their pollen as warmer weather moves in, and the spring allergy season will commence.

Dr. Charles Feldman, an allergist with the Columbia University Department of Pediatrics, states that most allergies known as hay fever have nothing to do with either fever or hay. The condition was named because its symptoms (watery eyes and stuffy nose) were most prevalent during haying season.

Our neighboring plants and trees often are the cause of our allergies; however, the most allergenic plant is ragweed.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about why birds do not interbreed in the wild. Well, I also have wondered why, with all the pollen produced by the plant world, plants do not interbreed in the wild. Since scientists are able to pollinate plants under laboratory conditions, why doesn’t this accidentally occur in the wild?

Flowering plants, including trees, have several different parts that are important in pollination. The male part of the flower, which is known as the stamen, produces a sticky powder called pollen.

Flowers also have a female part known as the pistil. The top of the pistil, the stigma, often is sticky and, at the base of the pistil (ovule), the seeds are made.

After pollen moves from the stamen to the stigma, the plant is pollinated. When pollen is transferred from the plant’s stamen to that same plant’s stigma, it is called self-pollination.

However, if pollen from a plant’s stamen is transferred to a different plant’s stigma, of the same species (for example, pollen from a daisy can only pollinate another daisy), it is known as cross-pollination. In the wild, cross-pollinated plants produce stronger plants.

Of course, plants are pollinated by bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, etc. If an insect carries pollen from one flower to another flower, it is known as accidental pollination. Plants pollinated in this fashion have brightly colored flowers, large petals, strong scents and, usually, heavy pollen to attract pollinators.

Plants that are pollinated by the wind usually have long stamens and pistils. Their flowers can be duller in color, with either smaller petals or none at all, since no insects need to land on them.

Hybrids are flowers and plants that can grow at random or by crossbreeding flowers (depending on the flower). The color of the flowers bred together determine the color of the crossbreed.

For example, a red rose and a yellow rose can make an orange rose, and a red rose and a white rose can make a pink rose. Tulips, pansies and cosmos often are forced-cross pollinated to create different colors.

Perhaps you think that cross pollinating by scientists (transgenic aka genetically modified) is a good thing. Well, in some cases, it is; however, a big risk in genetic contamination is the transfer of engineered genes to a wild version of the same plant.

The large companies involved with genetic engineering assure the government that this risk is minimal; however, the government has mandated buffer zones around such crops to ensure that the transfer of engineered genes do not mix with the wild version of the plant.

In North Dakota, genetically engineered pesticide-resistant canola is growing as a weed. It has been found that 80 percent of wild canola contained genes from the engineered canola plants, which were resistant to pesticides.

The genetically engineered plants, which have gone wild and now are considered weeds, have cross-pollinated their alien genes that are pesticide resistant.

The threat now is that the canola resistant plants will interbreed with other related weeds and, now, we are faced with the very real problem that our nation’s bread basket could become infested with super-weeds.

The USDA is considering allowing genetically engineered alfalfa to be planted this spring. Wheat that repels aphids has been genetically engineered in a greenhouse and scientists want to do field experiments with the engineered wheat.

Although scientists are saying that nearby wheat fields will not be contaminated, do we want to take the gamble?

Nature has been handling the pollination and cross-pollination of plants since the beginning of time. Leave it to man to screw things up.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences, the latest being ”Every Day Was Game Day.” Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.