Let’s face it – it is almost impossible to avoid plants that cause allergies. For one thing, pollen can travel many miles in the wind. It is also unreasonable to expect our neighbors not to use certain plants in their landscapes just because we are allergic to them. However, with a little care it is possible to avoid heavy exposure to the pollens of allergenic plants and be able to enjoy our gardens most of the year.
What Is An Allergy?
An allergy is an abnormal reaction to a very small amount of a specific substance that is normally harmless to people who do not have the allergy.
The most common cause of allergies (affecting 10 to 20 percent of the population) is airborne plant pollen. Pollen grains are the small male reproductive bodies by which the female flowers are fertilized. Hay fever and asthma are mostly associated with plants.
Reactions such as hives, edema and shock seldom occur from ordinary exposure to plants. Poison ivy is the one exception. Just a brief contact with it can result in rashes that stimulate a delayed allergic reaction.
Doctors in urban areas have reported an increase in allergy sufferers over the past few years. One reason for this increase has been the rise in the use of only male trees by city landscapers. Because female trees produce fruit, seed pods, flowers and so called “trash,” they have been replaced with male varieties.
The trouble is that the males are the ones producing the pollen.
When there are no female trees to trap that pollen the problem becomes even greater. You can help yourself and other allergy suffers by encouraging the use of female plants in public landscapes and in your own yard.
The use of native, insect pollinated plants such as the purple coneflower shown here reduces the chances of allergies in your garden.
Flowering dogwoods like the one shown here are good trees to use in an allergy free landscape.
Identify Your Allergy
The first step in gardening with allergies is to identify the plants that cause problems. By knowing which plants you are allergic to you can plan your landscape and gardening activities to reduce the chances of exposure. Utilize plants throughout the landscape that do not cause problems for your allergies.
Allergies vary from one person to another, and different people might be affected by different plants. It is best not to buy too many of one plant until you have determined what is safe for you. If you discover that something is a problem for you, simply have it removed.
Learn to recognize those times when certain plants are having their pollen season and try to avoid outdoor activities. Tree pollens usually occur in February and March. Grass pollens are worse from late May to mid-August. Certain weeds produce more pollen in September or October.
The time of day that you garden can also make a difference in the amount of pollen you are exposed to. Warm, dry, windy days are the worst time to be in the garden. Cloudy, humid, overcast days are best. If you are an early morning gardener, wait until after 10 a.m. and check the daily pollen count on your local weather report.
Other Helpful Suggestions
If possible, replace grass lawns with ground covers or something that does not require constant mowing. Mowing stirs up dust and other airborne particles that can be irritating to allergy sufferers. If you cannot get rid of the lawn, try to get someone else to do the mowing for you or wear a protective mask.
Wear a scarf or hat while gardening. Not only will you be protected from the harmful rays of the sun, but also pollen will be less apt to stick to your hair. Shed your gardening clothes at the door and wash them immediately. Pollen that has clung to clothing outside can do just as much damage if brought inside.
Mildew and other spores can accumulate under piles of leaves, so keep them cleaned up. Since bark mulch can retain moisture and encourage molds to grow, use gravel or plant ground covers instead. If trees heavily shade your yard, consider thinning the branches to allow more light. Fresh air and sunshine will cut down on molds and spores.
Limit the use of pesticides in the garden. Not only can the chemicals cause allergic reactions, but beneficial pollinating insects are destroyed.
Good News For Gardeners
For the most part, brightly colored, fragrant flowers are better for people who have allergies. Their pollen is large and because insects pollinate them, the pollen is seldom airborne.
A good sign as to whether a particular plant is going to be good for you is if you see a lot of bees and butterflies around it.
As with anything, there are exceptions to the rule. Some plants such as Russian olives and willows, while insect pollinated, do produce pollen in amounts large enough to cause allergic reactions. People with asthma should also avoid heavily scented flowers such as hyacinths, wisteria, freesias, carnations and jasmine. It’s not so much that scented plants are loaded with pollen, but the scent can trigger an allergy.
A Case Of Mistaken Identity
Sometimes, it’s not the obvious plant causing the allergic reaction. For example, when ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) pollen is disbursed, many people have a reaction, but since they don’t see the tiny flowers on the ragweed, they assume it’s the pollen from the larger flowered goldenrod (Solidago) that blooms at the same time.
Ragweed is pollinated by the wind. Because insects do not pollinate it, ragweed does not need visually attractive flower parts. One ragweed plant is capable of producing over a billion grains of pollen per season. Those suffering from allergies in September look for a flower to blame and goldenrod gets the rap because it is so visible and abundant. The pollen grains of goldenrod, as with all insect-pollinated flowers, are comparatively fat and sticky so that they will cling to visiting insects and be transferred to another flower. For someone to be affected by goldenrod pollen, they would have to stick their nose right into the flower!
If you have allergies, you don’t have to limit your gardening activities to viewing your plants through the window. There are many plants you can use that won’t contribute to your allergy symptoms.
What to Plant & What to Avoid
Some plant varieties are less allergy provoking than others. Here are some suggestions for what to plant and what to avoid for sneeze-free gardens.
(From Arkansas Gardener Volume VI Issue IV. Photos by Joyce Mendenhall.)