Not Very Showy, Not Much of a Smell

Not Very Showy, Not Much of a Smell

This post is part of a series contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter. Read the previous post here.

bald eagle in a white pine tree

I’ve been cutting a few white pines just lately – the Maine state tree, bearing, in this season, the state flower. It’s not much of a flower some would say, not very showy, not much of a smell – just a pale yellow tassel in the whispering forest canopy.

But . . . there’s something to be said for numbers, and there certainly are a lot of those pine flowers nodding across the state – a lot of pine trees for that matter, great tracts covered by them, whole towns, and on every tree, how many of those inconspicuous, little yellow inflorescences can there be? Several thousand? A million? I’m not about to count them, but I do know that a spectacle wholly deserving of the adjective, “awesome,” is brewing in the June breeze.

Soon, I know, I’ll be up to something or other, lost in thought or perhaps just gazing at some passing clouds. A fresh gust of wind will pass on some weather errand, and I will look across to the edge of my field where high pine branches will wave in the streaming air. It will be that expectant moment in the forest’s reproductive symphony, that pregnant pause before the cymbals clash.

Oblivious to the weevil chewing at its tender leader, to the waxwing nesting in its lower bough, to me, fingering the throttle on my chainsaw, the great whispering colossus we call the eastern white pine will be intent, instead, on seizing the advantage of biological synchrony. The timing has been well practiced for millions of years, yet the moment will always seem miraculous if for no other reason than the spectacle it offers.

pinus strobus linnaeus drawings

The white pine, Pinus strobus Linnaeus

In a breath, a soft, pale yellow cloud of dust will billow out from the green-needled branches. Then, cloud upon cloud, a blizzard of botanical spawn, will issue into the new summer air, each tiny pollen grain flying with the fates to find its matching female flower part.

How many bits of pollen will sail on the wind? How many will fail to find their chosen flower and land instead on some silent surface, or a puddle in the road? It is a number I can’t name – “zillions” maybe? But great successes are guaranteed. With so many grains in so many clouds, really nothing is left to chance. Some meaningful percentage will find precisely the right spot.

There will be fertilization. Clusters of ripe cones will mature to shed their winged seeds, and at least one fragile seedling will get its start. Grown, some years from now in the month of June, a gust of wind will prod its tiny flowers and perhaps give some unknown person pause to witness the great spectacle of a white pine once again letting go its pollen.

Barnaby PorterArtist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. Barnaby currently serves on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees. For more about Barnaby, click here.

Eagle photo courtesy of Barnaby Porter.