Friday, April 18, 2014

Invasion of the Pollen Worms

The worms are upon us again, filling the springtime air with visible clouds of yellow, sinus-swelling dust before parachuting down from the tips of oak and hickory branches everywhere.

They fall to the ground as feathery strands, sticking together in in couplets and triplets, gathering in ropey piles on driveways and sidewalks, blowing into golden-brown, furry mounds that fill the streets, clog downspouts and storm drains, sending neighbors out in frenzied droves, armed with push brooms, yard rakes, leaf-blowers, and a renewed appreciation for creative profanity.

Opportunist that I am, I wait for the weekend activity to die down, then I grab my trusty wheelbarrow, and shuttle up and down the street collecting as much of the stuff as I can – before anyone else catches on. (I don't think anyone will, though. I’ve been collecting them for years. My neighbors just think I’m crazy.)

Pollen worms are a boon to my garden, a multifunctional asset that I am more than happy to keep all to myself. To understand why, it helps to learn a little bit about them.

These odd creatures are in fact flowers – male flowers – of acorn and nut trees. They’re the culprits partly responsible for the thick, yellow, warm-weather haze that covers windshields, and keeps antihistamine manufacturers in business.

Two to three inches long, with minute, knob-like, pollen-bearing anthers arranged along a thin central stem, these wispy comb-like structures interlock and cling to one another, gathering into large, spongy masses as they tumble along the street. On the plus side, this makes them easy to sweep up and carry away. On the minus, a large wind-blown pile can choke a storm drain. For people sensitive to a particular brand of pollen, the appearance of the worm tangles is the beginning of a nightmare.

The structure of these light, porous pollen worm masses makes them the perfect mulch for my vegetable patch. Bundles of pollen worms stick to each other like Velcro, assuming any desired shape, conforming to the layout of the garden plot. New layers of worms cling to the masses underneath and stay put, allowing variable depths of mulch among plants of different heights, and encouraging additional layers as plants grow up through the early spring season.

Water and air pass right through. Weeds can’t. And the big bonus: excess pollen sifts down to the bottom of the pile to fertilize my plants, free of charge. If you wish to plant new seedlings, simply poke a hole in the mulch, and drop in the new additions. At the end of the season, any organic residue can be turned under, conditioning the soil for next spring’s planting.

Embrace the pollen worm invasion – or if you’re allergic, get your neighbors to deposit their stash into your compost pile for later distribution.

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