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By Scott Sullivan


Green Streets/Sex

Who knew trees change sexes? Spell “sexes” backwards and you’ll see what I mean. Only when they bloom can you tell if they’re boy, girl or TBA, botanists say.

Lots (trees, not botanists) are hermaphrodites — i.e. their flowers have male and female reproductive parts. The male are the pollen-laden stamens, female the egg-holding pistils.

Individual branches of acer pensylvanicum, a striped maple found in the northeast U.S. and southeastern Canada, can switch from male to female when cut off trees, the Washington Post reports.

Why? Rutgers University experiments showed cut branches, placed in sugar water, were either male-female or just female. In different environments — inside, outside, without sugar water — same.

“It was obvious,” said Rutgers plant reproductive specialist Jennifer Blake-Mahmud, “it was something about the branch, not the tree. It seems damage is important as far as triggering a branch cut off of a male tree to become female.” Guys who have been “cut off” for whatever reason can sympathize.

“There’s a lot of sex going on in plants that people don’t know about,” said Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History research botanist and curator John Kress. Blindfold your kids lest a Kama Sutra for trees pervert them.

Kress is concerned that climate change may mean more trees change sex. If more are all-female, that will mean less fruit — maybe not enough to feed us.

“Trees go through a lot,” said Blake-Mahmud. “Antlers rubbing against them, deer chewing them, bigger trees falling on them.” Cry me a sap river.

“They don’t have an easy life,” she went on, “so it might make sense that there’s a ‘damage’ cue. … If the branch is going to die anyway, it might make sense to be female and produce seeds before dying.”

With sense like that they should run for office. Who or what will pollinate those seeds? That’s why I love science: every answer gives rise to 1,000 questions. The search for truth leads most to prefer not knowing.

Take green pavement. No, Douglas isn’t infusing chlorophyll into its newly-built bike trail south of the Blue Star Bridge. Things are risqué enough there as is. The City of the Village is adhering to new design trends meant to increase the trail’s visibility, identify possible conflict areas and reinforce cyclists’ priority in those lanes.

Douglas joins New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and others as forerunners in this movement. We’re not used to change, which is why I like and am wary of it. Is “the Art Coast of West Michigan” an oxymoron? Can creative and backwards thinking coexist?

I drive cars and ride bikes, which makes me a traitor to both, I guess. I think room should be made for all: bicycles, cars, trucks, scooters, runners, walkers, parents pushing strollers, fire trucks, pogo sticks … without rivalry or hostility.

It makes sense to separate larger and faster vehicles from smaller and slower ones where possible. I’d rather not drive my semi on sidewalks or stroll down the center of an expressway.

Note “where possible.” Space is as finite as time and money. The City of Saugatuck has legitimate safety concerns about extending a bike trail west of Blue Star past the Lake Street south entrance to its downtown.

Build a tunnel under it? Bridge over it? Maybe those aren’t feasible. A trail would work better east of Blue Star — ironically, where a northbound sign says the current “bike lane,” a painted line inches from motorized traffic, ends.

Where do I go from there if I’m on a bike? Cross the highway and then face Lake Street? Where’s the safety concern for that?

The nonprofit Friends of the Blue Star Trail are proposing a 20-mile stretch from Saugatuck to South Haven. There are, or would have been, issues on the east side too. Or zigzagging back and forth across busy Blue Star.

If you want something foolproof and problem-free, stay away from people. We need governments that do more than point out problems. The next step is work on solutions too.