Here’s a fun fact you may have seen online and even shared. The U.S. government encouraged people to plant only males trees to avoid mess from fruit and berries. But the male trees then produced vast amounts of pollen and made our allergy season worse. Now, it attacks our sinuses because there aren’t female trees to pull it out of the air and prevent our allergies. Crazy story, but with just enough conspiracy and “down with the plant patriarchy” intrigue to make us want to believe it. But it’s not true.
Thankfully, Slate did the research to pinpoint how this rumor got started and spread across the internet. This NSFW Twitter thread also debunks the idea. The basics are that yes, tree sex is making you sneeze. But no, it’s not a vast capitalistic, sexist conspiracy. Unless you count climate change as a conspiracy.
For starters, an overwhelming majority of plants on Earth are monoecious, meaning they have both male and female reproductive parts. Trees that use wind to pollinate release vast amounts of pollen because only some small percentage make it to the intended destination. Plants that rely on insects, birds, or bats to pollinate release much less pollen.
Some trees are gendered, called dioecious. For example, most junipers are either male or female. You can tell them apart because female trees are loaded with juniper berries while males have none.
It is true that allergy season is getting worse, longer, and affecting more people than ever. Rising temperatures trigger plants, including trees and grass, to produce and release more pollen. So while growing animal-pollinated plants instead of wind-pollinated ones would lower the pollen count, the real fix for a bad allergy season is to slow down global warming. The video below from Vox gets into that more.
If you don’t have pollen allergies (yet), consider yourself lucky. Enjoy the outdoors year-round the way some of us simply cannot. Even looking at this lamp in the shape of pollen makes me sneeze.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.