California Almonds: Bloom Review – What Went Right or Wrong in 2017

Photo: Abe Isaak, Ultra Gro Plant Food, Madera, California

The almond nut set appears, so far this year, to be a mixed bag in the Sacramento Valley. A review of the many steps involved in successful nut set may provide a better understanding of just what went wrong (or right) for different varieties across the region at bloom this year.

1. Anthers open as relative humidity drops in the late morning, exposing dry pollen grains (containing male sperm cells). Not all anthers in a flower open on the same day, so fresh pollen is produced by the same flower for several days.

Rain can rupture pollen grains after anthers open and before pollen grains germinate. Temperature does not affect pollen viability, but it does influence pollen germination and pollen tube growth rate.

2. Bees move pollen from the anthers of one flower to the stigma of a compatible variety’s flower.  Bees are more active when temperatures are above 55oF, winds are less than 15 mph and it is not raining. When these conditions are met for an hour, we count that as a “bee hour” – a rough metric of good or bad conditions for pollination. Strong hives (8 frames or more) collect 3x more pollen than a 4-frame hive.

3. Stigma (the pollen landing pad) and style (the passageway to the ovule) are receptive for 4-5 days. If the stigma is receptive, the pollen grain hydrates from stigmatic secretions, germinates and begins to grow down the style towards the ovule, which contains female germ cells.

If the pollen tube reaches and enters the ovule while the ovule is still viable, a nut will be set. Multiple pollen tubes grow down the style simultaneously preparing the ovule for fertilization, but only one pollen tube’s contents fertilize the ovule.

Multiple pollen tubes growing down a single style, including both compatible and incompatible pollens will improve the chances for successful fertilization of the ovule.

4. Rate of pollen germination and pollen tube growth towards the ovule is temperature sensitive. At temperatures between 50-70oF, pollen grains germinate rapidly. Optimum pollen tube growth rate occurs between 60-85oF.

5. Pollen tube growth from germination to ovule fertilization can take 5-8 days, depending on temperature. An ovule remains viable for 5-7 days. The effective pollination period is the time “window” between flower opening and the last day a pollen grain can land on the stigma and still grow down the style to fertilize a viable ovule.

6. The sooner after opening a flower is pollinated, the better the chances that it will set a nut.  In UC research, flowers pollinated on the day they opened had 30% nut set, flowers pollinated 3 days after opening had 21% set, and flowers pollinated 5 days after opening had only a 1% chance of setting a nut.

This is why it is so important to have viable, compatible pollen in the orchard (and good bee activity) when Nonpareil flowers begin to open. This is also why it is good that all flowers don’t open on the same day.

Tentative take home from the 2017 bloom season:

1. This was not a year to skimp on bees, with less than 25 bee hours from February 17-28. This corresponded to mid to late Nonpareil bloom in the Arbuckle district, where strong hives would have made the most of that limited flying time.

2. Good bee flight on February 18 and February 21 may have been extremely important to the crop this year.

3. The cold weather from February 17 to 28 contributed to delaying bloom for the later blooming varieties into a time of good bee weather the first week of March, when later varieties could still be successfully pollinated.

The subjective almond crop estimate is due out on May 10 (the same day as the Nickels Field Day in Arbuckle). We will know more about the statewide crop situation on that date.

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