Pollinator or Pollenizer – What’s in a word?

Pollen is essential to fruit, vegetable and seed production.  We all know how it works - it's just plant sex - the bees part of that "the birds and the bees" chat.

But when it comes to discussing pollination, we often use terms improperly. And when I say often, I mean really often. Even people who should know better get it wrong, like garden writers, wholesale growers, and nursery owners.

Yes, we all know what they mean, and we could just say "why fight it?", but serious gardeners spend time trying to get things right for a reason - it makes us better gardeners. It's why we memorize botanical names and study soil composition.

I was introduced to the subject by an expert in pollinating insects. It was a pet peeve of his. He politely corrected us in group discussions until his point was taken. I still catch myself slipping in conversation, but I try to get it right in presentations and things I write.

British or US?
First of all, spelling is an issue. The grains of pollen are always expressed as p-o-l-l-e-n. But when we talk about the action of pollinating, we most commonly see the "e" switch to an "i".  Go figure.

There are differences in the British and American spellings so you will see pollinizer, pollenizer, polliniser, and polleniser depending on the origin of the reference text. Technically, they are all correct. And a lot of really good garden information comes from British and Australian texts.

Then there are the terms pollinate, pollinize, pollinator, pollinizer. They are often used interchangeably, but they are not actually interchangeable. Let's sort them out quickly.

  • Pollinate: The act of moving pollen from one flower to another
  • Pollinator: The biotic agent that moves pollen from one flower to another; bee, wasp, fly, bat, bird, moth, beetle or ant
  • Pollinize: To provide pollen, to pollinate
  • Pollinizer: A plant that provides fertile pollen
  • Self-fertile: A plant that is capable of producing viable fruit using its own pollen (also "self-fruitful")
  • Self-pollinate: A plant that is capable of pollinating its own flowers

The most common error is found in fruit tree catalogs. For example, you will see one plum tree labeled as a "pollinator" for another variety of plum. Not possible. The BEE is the pollinator. The tree that provides fertile pollen for another tree is the "pollinizer".

Here we see a pollinator on the left, a bee, and a pollinizer on the right, an apple blossom.

The second most common error is to use "self-pollinating", when what they mean is "self-fertile" or "self-fruitful". There are very few plants that actually "self-pollinate", even when they have "perfect" (or bisexual) flowers. They must be capable for shedding their own pollen grains from the anther to the stigma of the same flower. Tomatoes, potatoes, sunflowers and peas are among those plants that are truly self-pollinating.

In the pictures below, you can see the nearly closed cone of anthers. These anthers shed pollen when the plant is shaken by the wind or sonicated by bees. The loosened grains of pollen adhere to the sticky stigma, sheltered inside the cone of anthers.