Earth Notes - Juniper Pollen

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: The Juniper Pollen Project

For many people, spring arrives with the sighting of the first wildflower or first robin. But for some, spring brings a problem: it means the arrival of juniper pollen, a common cause of asthma and allergies in the upland Southwest.

Now researchers are relying on citizen science to track when the pollen is on its way. The Juniper Pollen Project needs volunteers to observe individual junipers near their homes and note when the trees release their fine yellow dust.

The pollen project is part of the National Phenology Network, which keeps data on seasonal cycles for many different plants and animals.

Popularly called "cedars," junipers are among the most important trees of Southwest woodlands. In northern New Mexico, Rocky Mountain and one-seed junipers are species of interest to the pollen project.

Estelle Levetin of the University of Tulsa is one of the project's principal investigators. She hopes to have as many people as possible looking at junipers in the field. As volunteers make regular visits to their trees, they will be looking closely at when the male cones turn brown and start to produce pollen, and when the cones open to release the millions of tiny grains. On the Colorado Plateau, that release is timed with spring winds that disperse the pollen.

The information they gather will be used by doctors, nurses, and health officials. It will help alert allergy and asthma sufferers when to expect a rain of pollen, and how to better prevent its adverse effects.

-Rose Houk