Hay Fever No Reason to Avoid Gardening

Gardening doesn't have to be out of the question for all allergy sufferers.

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Many species of acacia trees are serious pollen producers. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer)

Hay fever is no reason to avoid gardening. The key to keeping symptoms under control is to remember that pollen is the allergen. Pollen is produced by male reproductive structures. Reduce or eliminate male flowers, and you can cut way back on allergens.

Plants are pollinated in two ways, by a vector such as a honeybee or by wind. Bee-pollinated plants have male and female parts existing in the same flower. Wind-pollinated plants spew prodigious amounts of pollen into the air with a scattergun approach.

Mesquite trees are among the worst allergen sources in the Southwest. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer)
Large ornamental grasses hold their flowers high into the wind so it will carry the pollen away, a fact that makes them potential allergens. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer)

Pine trees are such powerful pollen blowers that you'll find yellow dust buildup on the windshield during peak periods in forested communities. It's easy to see why this unavoidable problem makes most conifers plantas non gratas for allergy gardeners.

Pines produce male and female flowers on the same plant. Male flowers are at the top of the tree, where they more easily catch the wind to carry pollen far and wide. Female flowers are lower on the same tree, opening upward to catch the pollen as it filters downward. These will become seed-bearing cones when mature.

Some plants are diecious, which means "two houses," because they produce male flowers on one plant and the female parts on another. Diecious species include olive, cottonwood, willow and sumac. If you grow only a female form of these plants you will have no pollen in the garden. Ask your local garden-center expert about available female clones.

Another strategy is to work with the wind in the garden to reduce pollen counts. If there is a prevailing breeze in your yard, know that pollen will be more concentrated on the downwind side of the plant. If you plant trees on the windward side of your yard, pollen will be blown across your living spaces before moving on. Plant your trees on the downwind side of your yard, and the pollen floats away into someone else's yard.

Finally, the best way to reduce allergens is to avoid plants that produce them in significant quantities. These notorious bad boys are well-recognized by doctors as the most common source of pollen-based allergies. Grasses and sedges top the list because they are mostly wind-pollinated. The surge of large ornamental grasses in landscapes has created a significant problem. While their flower heads are exquisitely beautiful, they can be carefully cut off when developing to allow the animated beauty of grasses without the pollen problem. In fact, you can cut off the flowers of virtually any plant to reduce its pollen production in your garden.

Among the trees, beware of acacia, alder, ash, catalpa, Chinese elm, mesquite and walnut. Female forms of olive, cottonwood, poplar, aspen, sumac, willow and California pepper are preferable, but male forms of these same species are very high pollen producers. Artemisia, privet, bottlebrush and aster also top the allergen list.

For a more detailed list of landscape plants rated for their allergen potential, consult Thomas Leo Ogren's book, Allergy-Free Gardening.

Gardening isn't out of the question for all allergy sufferers. The key is to understand how the flowers are pollinated to better avoid the problem children.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at mo@moplants.com. For more information, visit: www.moplants.com or

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