The volunteer tree on my deck is a male! He just flowered for the first time! So now he’s a grownup tree! He’s the tree I wrote about a couple of months ago, the Ash-Leaved Maple, sometimes called a Box Elder, which set up housekeeping in a pot on my deck about five years ago. You can see his flowers in the image above.
Those little strings hanging down are the flowers, and like most tree flowers, they come before there is much in the way of leaves. That is because the pollen grains the flowers carry will be distributed in and by the wind, as they try to make their way to a female plant of their kind; if there are not many leaves on the trees, there’s a better chance for the tiny grains to fly unobstructed to their goal.
Pollen (which you could think of as sperm if you want) is the male element of a plant, and it is produced by a flower. All species of flowering plants, which includes trees, make pollen. There are also female parts in flowers, which are the receptacles for the pollen. The female parts, once their ovaries are fertilized (yes, plants have ovaries), will make fruit, and, of course, inside fruit are seeds for carrying on the next generation.
Some plants, like my volunteer tree, have got EITHER male OR female flowers on one plant. Other plants have BOTH. The first kind of plant, with either/or, is called monoecious (which means, charmingly, “one household” and is said mon-EE-shus). The second kind, with both, is dioecious (“two households”, dye-EE-shus). More interesting words to throw casually into conversation. And many plants, such as the decorative ones that people put in gardens for enjoyment, have both male and female parts together in one bloom, called, also charmingly, don’t you think? a perfect flower.
If you are sneezing and coughing at this wind-carried pollen time of year, you can blame it on the weeny, barely-there tree pollen grains, just trying to get to a female. You might notice, in a rain puddle or on a pond surface, swirls of what look like dust. The dust is pollen grains which did not make it to their female goal. They have fallen out of the air and there they float, their hopeful journey undertaken in vain.
It’s okay though; the trees make an overabundance of pollen so that at least some might produce the next generation. It’s a chancy thing, depending on the vagaries of the wind to take you where you need to go. Not nearly as certain an affair as counting on bees or butterflies or bats or beetles or birds to transfer your pollen to a waiting female part.
But that is another story for later in the summer.
Red Maples are one of the trees which is monoecious (see above). I waited too long to photograph this, but you can tell at a distance if a Red Maple is male or female. The males, because their red flowers are carrying yellow pollen, look orangeish at a distance. The females have deep red flowers with, of course, no pollen, and so they have a very dark red appearance when seen from afar.