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Giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) is a notorious sneeze-causing weed and should be avoided by gardeners who suffer from allergies. -image courtesy of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Gardening presents significant challenges to those who suffer from allergies and hay fever. But that's all they are-challenges-not insurmountable obstacles.
Pollen and mold are formidable enemies. Nearly invisible, these ubiquitous air pollutants nonetheless account for most hay fever misery: itchy eyes, runny nose, plugged ears, and scratchy, irritated throat. Doctors estimate that 50 million American express hay fever symptoms, nearly a third of whom suffer from the most extreme form of hay fever-asthma.
On a checklist of hobbies not to pursue if you suffer from hay fever, gardening would probably make the top 10. But if plants are your passion, it's worth trying to reconcile the two. Combined with medically based allergy treatments, such as medication and shots, allergy-free gardening techniques can enable those with moderate hay fever symptoms to enjoy their favorite pastime. Or enjoy it more.
Until recently, I was skeptical that gardeners could have any significant impact on exposure to allergens simply by growing special plants. Pollen and mold are everywhere. Since it was impossible--I assumed--to keep pollen from blowing in, just stepping into the backyard would cause sneezing.
That's not necessarily so, reports Thomas Ogren. The closer a victim is to the source of the pollen, the greater chance he has of suffering from overexposure.
Studies show that 99 percent of birch pollen-among the worst for allergy sufferers--falls within 20 feet of that birch tree. Keep birch trees out of your yard, and allergic symptoms can be reduced.
Ogren cites additional studies that suggest that exposure to pollen from plants in your own yard is 10 times greater than from pollen that blows in from the neighbors.
That established, he contends that people who suffer from moderate hay fever should, indeed, be able to continue gardening outdoors--he cautions against bringing cut flowers indoors: why risk it?--if they choose the right kinds of plants.
Ogren is a California gardener. Many of the species he recommends are tender here in Zone 5-6 gardens. Nonetheless, the plant list is fairly comprehensive, and studying it carefully, an allergy victim in Southwestern Pennsylvania (USDA Zone 5b) could find enough desirable material to build respectable allergy-free flowerbeds.
All plants on Ogren's list receive an allergy potential rating, from one to 10. One is the best score; those plants produce little or no pollen or mold. Ten is the worst--allergy sufferers should avoid tens, such as ragweed, at all cost. Birch trees rate a "7" on Ogren's list.
I set out with the book to determine what an allergy-free Pennsylvania garden might look like. Worst-case scenario, I allowed only plants with ratings of one, two and three through the garden gate, assuming anyone with mild hay fever symptoms could manage just by taking an allergy pill prior to heading out to the garden.
For shade, one could choose either an "October Glory" (rating: 1) or "Red Sunset" (rating: 1) red maple (Acer rubrum). With gorgeous fall color and no pollen in the spring, these red maple varieties are first-rate shade trees for any garden.
Beneath the high shade of the red maple, or alongside a patio or path, one could plant a sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) or Japanese Stewartia (S.pseudocamellia). With ratings of 2 and 3, respectively, an allergy victim could enjoy four seasons of exceptional beauty and interest from either of these small ornamental trees without repercussion.
Some of our most spectacular flowering trees, including crabapple and hawthorn, rate fairly low, at 4. Heavy pollen that lands close to the tree might enable a gardener to use them, if they were carefully sited away from the house.
An allergy-free shrub border could include excellent specimens such as big-leaf hydrangea (3), red chokeberry (2), Carolina allspice (3) and azaleas (3). A gardener could even plant roses. Roses rate just a 3 on Ogren's allergy continuum, due to heavy pollen that doesn't take flight.
In their flower beds, allergy sufferers have a host of plants to choose from, for Ogren cites enough annuals and perennials with ratings of three or below to build a lovely and colorful border: columbine (1), rockcress (1), and Johnny-jump-up (1) for early spring bloom; followed by dianthus (3), penstemon (2), hollyhocks (3), daylilies (3), lobelia (1) and balloon flower (2).
For shade, choose hostas (1) and variegated-leaved ajugas (1), sprinkling in annual impatiens (1) or tuberous begonias (3) for pizzazz. Annuals for sunny beds include petunia (2), periwinkle (1), Zinnia (3) and snapdragon (1). Use black-eyed susan vine (3) or passion vine (3) to climb a trellis or fence.
Questions about pollen: