The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Pollen has the power to trigger spring time allergies

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

A snort, a sneeze, followed by two sniffles and a wheeze. Ah, it's the call of the allergy sufferer. It's estimated that 60 million Americans suffer each year from allergies. Many of us look forward to spring, but for others spring is 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, Friday afternoons at the office, mold, and fragrances, pollen is a common allergen.

Not all plants have the same likelihood of causing allergies. Plants that are wind pollinated possess the most potential to create allergies. Their pollination strategy is to produce vast quantities of light weight pollen grains easily carried by the wind to a receptive female flower. Unfortunately the cloud of pollen also winds up in our noses and eyes. Wind pollinated plants generally have small green or brown, often overlooked, flowers. Many tree flowers are barely noticed visually, but pack a punch nasally.

Bright, highly colored, showy flowers are usually insect pollinated. These plants possess heavy, sticky pollen designed to adhere to bees and other insects as they travel from flower to flower. Insect pollinated plants are much less likely to cause allergies since the pollen isn't in the air. 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.

Trees are a significant source of pollen; however they produce flowers for a relatively short period (March-May) compared to the other major pollen source, grasses. A few trees with allergy causing potential include (in flowering order): maple, willow, poplar, elm, birch, mulberry, ash, hickory, oak, walnut and pine.

Grass pollen has greater allergy potential because grasses flower throughout summer and are everywhere. Common grasses include: orchardgrass, Kentucky bluegrass (if allowed to flower), oats, wheat, timothy grass, Bermuda grass and redtop. Late summer brings other pollen sources including ragweed, 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; however, when adding plants to your landscape consider a plant's allergy potential before planting. Remember large brightly colored flowers are generally acceptable, unless you are a flower sniffer.

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.

Determine your triggers by discussing your symptoms with your physician and keeping track of when symptoms appear. In the meantime, look to the bees to tell you which flowers are best for a sneezeless spring.

The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology is one source for daily pollen and mold levels. You can sign up to get regular email alerts and yes, they even have an app for that

For great plants including natives and herbs, check out Plant Sale Event Saturday May 10, 2014 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. inside Lincoln Square in Urbana. Groups selling plants include: Grand Prairie Friends, Champaign-Urbana Herb Society and the African Violet Society.

View Article Archive >>