The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Gardening with allergies in mind

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

A snort, a sneeze, followed by two sniffles. Ah it's the call of the allergy sufferer. It's estimated that 50 million people suffer each year from allergies. Many of us look forward to spring, but for others it can mean a season of suffering from sneezing, runny nose, and itchy watery eyes. Allergy symptoms range from being an annoyance to life threatening. Although many things can trigger allergies including pet dander, work, mold, and fragrances, pollen is a common allergen.

Not all plants have the same likelihood of causing allergies. Plants that are wind pollinated have the most potential to create allergies. These plants produce vast quantities of pollen grains that are carried by the wind to a receptive female flower. Unfortunately the cloud of pollen can also end up in our noses and eyes. Wind pollinated plants tend to have relatively small green or brown flowers. The flowers may go completely unnoticed by most people. A good example is ragweed, a common allergy producing plant. Many tree and shrub flowers are barely noticed visually, but pack a punch nasally.

Most people blame goldenrod for their allergies when it is more likely the ragweed that blooms at the same time that is causing their symptoms. Goldenrod is insect pollinated. Insect pollinated plants tend to have heavy sticky pollen so it will stick well to bees and other insects as they travel from flower to flower. These plants are much less likely to cause allergies since the pollen isn't in the air. Bright, highly colored, showy flowers are usually insect pollinated.

People's sensitivity to certain plants can vary widely so always discuss your allergies with your health care professional. Plants shed pollen at different times of the year so a look at the calendar might help to narrow down the culprit. Trees and shrubs are some of our first bloomers.

Sex, plant sex that is, can also be the source of sniffling and sneezing. Some plants are both male and female while others have male plants and female plants. Since it's the males that shed pollen, beware of male plants. Unfortunately for allergy sufferers male plants are often selected for planting since the fruits of many female trees such as ash or Kentucky coffeetree are considered unsightly or messy.

Here are a few trees with allergy causing potential: Ash (male), cottonwood, elm, hickory, juniper/cedar, mulberry, oaks, walnut, pine, poplar (male), sycamore, Russian olive, and willow.

Other allergy producing plants can include: Kentucky bluegrass (if allowed to flower), orchard grass, timothy grass, castor bean, pigweed and lamb's quarter.

Since many of these plants are throughout our communities it's not practical to completely eliminate the source of pollen but if you are adding plants to your landscape and are an allergy sufferer, consider the allergy potential of a plant before planting. We may also want to reevaluate plant selections in playgrounds.

Once you determine which plants may be causing your symptoms, you can then figure the worst and best times to work in the garden. If you do go outside during the worst times, reduce your exposure by wearing gloves, a long sleeved shirt, hat, and sunglasses or goggles. Also wearing a pollen mask may be necessary. After working outside take a shower and thoroughly wash hair and clothes.

You also have a good excuse to delegate certain garden chores to others. Such as:

  • Working in the compost pile where molds may be prevalent.
  • Working with mulch or straw.
  • Raking or mowing lawns. Mowing can be particularly bad since it causes grass, pollen, and mold to go airborne.

In the mean time, look to the bees to tell you which flowers are best for a sneezeless spring.

For more information, check out Tom Ogren's book, Allergy-Free Gardening.

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