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On Not Inhaling in the Garden

The heady perfume of lilacs evokes happy associations from my childhood. Still, recently that musky scent feels heavy. This year a headache got worse for a week; finally Ward pruned off all the lilac flowers for me.

Some plants frequently provoke allergies, but people react differently too. For lists of plants likely to be problematic or safe, see books like _Creating a Low-Allergen Garden_, by Lucy Huntington, and _Allergy-Free Gardening_, by Tom Ogren; also at many places on the Web. Ogren even provides a searchable list, graded on a ten-point scale, at <http://www.allegra.com/plant_glossary.jsp>.

How minimize pollen problems? Use bird or insect-pollinated plants, which make larger pollen grains, that don't float on the wind, and irritate less — and not so much of them. In addition, some of these flowers keep their pollen deep inside (like snapdragons).

Dioecious plants (fleeceflower, meadow rue, buffalo grass) have either male (pollen-producing) or female (pollen-trapping) flowers; you can eliminate pollen by planting only females. Tom Ogren campaigns to educate city landscapers on the health hazards of planting male trees — a very common practice, since males produce no seeds, fruits, messy flowers or old seedpods to clean up.

Tests said I react to ragweed and grass — but they don't bother me much, and the lab didn't test for Scotch broom or Daphne, which devastate me.

I only know for sure what I can and cannot tolerate, by exposing myself to it and observing how I feel. Even then, it may take repeated exposure to develop clear intolerance. With sweet-smelling flowers, I need to notice when I feel ambivalent about the smell, liking it and not liking it at the same time. It's too easy to ignore the warning.

Another tactic: avoid the garden in windy or hot, still weather — both raise pollen count. Or protect eyes, nose and mouth with a mask (I use a bandana) and goggles (but they fog up). Especially when mowing the lawn, which stirs up not only pollen but mold — weedwhacking, too.

Other concentrated mold: compost piles, decomposing mulches. I also mask when using fertilizer.

The last straw: scent itself can be dangerous. The sense of smell is the only one that conducts molecules of what's perceived deep into the brain itself. Strong scents are most problematic — like lilacs. Or lily-of-the-valley, which blooms concurrently — and redundantly, I thought till now. But so far I'm still enjoying the smell of lilies-of-the-valley wafting in my window.

© Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark


Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 21 May 2004

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For more information
  • Allergy-Free Gardening — Tom Ogren's site
  • OPALS (Ogren Plant-Allergy Scale) Plant Glossary — rates over 3,000 common trees, shrubs, flowers, and other landscaping plants by their allergen-producing potential based on studies involving inhalation and skin contact.
  • Creating a Low-Allergen Garden, by Lucy Huntington (Green Hands receives a commission if you buy using this link.)
  • Nothing to Sneeze At, by Anita Dubey, on the site of Canadian Gardening magazine
  • Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides) — a dioecious grass (but not the only one, as the page claims).
  • A few examples of dioecious plants
    • most are trees or shrubs: gingko, catalpa, tree of heaven, persimmon, holly, bayberry, some pussy willows, and many junipers...
    • probably the most common among perennials: some clematis varieties.