There is nothing like the garden. The magic of young plants thriving under the gardener’s care, the bursting forth of vibrant blooms. But if you’ve never donned the cotton gloves for fear of cultivating pollen and misery, you are missing out. It is possible to create an allergy-friendly garden. There’s just some planning to the planting.
If you know you have allergies, but don’t know to which plants or trees, keep track of your symptoms and visit an allergist for testing. Once your specific allergies have been diagnosed, you’ll know what to eliminate in your allergy-friendly garden.
Next, research the allergenicity of plants. “Go on the Internet and read articles, read books, learn as much as possible,” advises Thomas Leo Ogren, author of the Allergy-Free Gardening, the newer The Allergy-Fighting Garden and an expert on horticulture and allergies.
There are several factors that determine how much a given plant will affect someone predisposed to pollen allergy. These include: the sex of the plant; the size, shape and color of the flower; how the plant is pollinated (by wind or insects); and what the pollen itself is like.
Pollen and Pollination
The size and shape of a plant’s pollen can dictate its allergenicity. So does its means of getting from one plant to another. Wind pollination requires light pollen – and lots of it – that can travel great distances. This is the troublesome kind because it is abundant, easily inhaled and likely to cause allergic reactions.
Flowers that depend on bees, wasps, butterflies, moths and beetles for collection and dispersal of pollen tend to produce heavy, sticky grains that are somewhat airborne. A good rule for an allergy-friendly garden is to avoid all wind-pollinated plants, unless there are female versions available.
Head to plants with bigger, brighter blooms. “Go for flowers with bright colors and as many petals as possible,” says Ogren. The showier flowers tend to be insect pollinated, and the shape of the bloom will also play a part. If the pollen is buried deep inside the flower, it will be less likely to blow away on the wind and into your nose. Stalwart examples of low-pollen summer flowers include pansies, violets, hydrangeas, gladiolus and fuchsia, to name a few.
Be careful with heavily scented blooms, which can trigger attacks in asthmatics. This is especially important when choosing roses, which are often prized for their scent as much as their beauty.
Annuals are a great way to add yard color, and many aren’t triggers for allergies unless planted in large clusters. Some of the better choices are: impatiens, petunias, sweet pea and foxglove.
“I would not buy and plant anything that lives a long time, any tree or shrub, unless I had a very good idea of what it’s allergy potential was,” says Ogren. “Don’t buy any that are seedless, fruitless or podless since they are probably males and will make lots of pollen.” For an allergy-friendly garden, look for shrubs and trees with berries or fruit rather than flowers – they’ll be female.
We love our lush lawns, but grass is the most common, persistent allergy offender. In fact, it can cause reactions even if it’s not the allergen because pollen, dust, mould, and insects and their droppings get trapped in the lawn, and then disturbed when you mow. The best option for an allergy-friendly garden is to avoid laying sod altogether. Stylish, modern gardens are often a mix of stone pathways and flower beds.
If you must have a patch of green, weekly mowing is key. This will keep the grass from flowering and producing pollen, and provide less of a harbor for other allergens. Using a push mower also disturbs allergens less. Be sure to clean up clippings promptly to avoid mold growth. Better yet, have a non-allergic person mow the lawn.
“The worst molds in the garden are caused by insects on buggy plants,” says Ogren. Unhealthy plants should be replaced, and the others fertilized regularly to keep them healthy. Rake up leaves in the fall and avoid overwatering, which can create a perfect damp environment for mold to flourish.
Allergy-Friendly Gardens: the Uncontrollable
Whether it’s a towering tree you can’t cut down, pollen floating in from miles away or what your neighbors have planted next door, there will be some things beyond your control. But, there is much about your outdoor space that you can determine. With some research and planning, you, too, can get digging.
The Ogren Plant Allergy Scale** (OPALS) assigns plants a rating from 1 to 10, with 1 being best for allergies and 10 being worst. The following all fall in the 1- 2 range, except where noted.
Trees including maple, birch, alder, ash, elm, chestnut, oak and poplar are often pegged as allergy foes. But it’s the male plants that distribute the pollen; female versions of almost all of these trees are safe.
Allergy-Friendly Gardens and the Plants to Look For
BOTANICAL NAME /COMMON NAME
- Lathyrus odoratus – Sweet pea
- Thunbergia alata – Black-eyed Susan vine
- Catharanthus roseus – Periwinkle
- Coleus blumei – Coleus
- Digitalis – Foxglove
- Impatiens – Impatiens
- Myosotis – Forget-me-nots
- Nierembergia – Cup flower
- Petunia – Petunia
- Viola – Johnny jump up, pansy, violet
- Brodiaea – Dlephant’s ears
- Crocus – Spring-flowering crocus
- Cyclamen – Cyclamen
- Galanthus – Snowdrops
- Gladiolus – Gladiolus
- Hyacinth – Hyacinth (numerous varieties)
- Gentiana – Gentian
- Geranium – True geranium, cranesbill
- Hemerocallis – Day lily
- Hosta – Hosta, plantain lily
- Peony – Peony
- Physalis – Chinese lantern
- Polemonium – Jacob’s ladder
- Rhodedendron* – Azalea, rhododendron
- Sempervivum – Hens and chicks
- Fucshia – Fucshia
- Hydrangea grandiflora – Big leaf hydrangea
- Dianthus – Carnation, pinks
- Papaver – Poppy
- Begonia* – Fibrous or tuberous begonia
- Rosa – Rose (numerous varieties)
- Phlox* – Phlox
*Rated 3 or 4. Use sparingly.
** See The Allergy-Fighting Garden by Thomas Leo Ogren, a great book on this topic.
The Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALS) assigns plants a rating from 1 to 10, with 1 being best for allergies and 10 being worst. The following plants were rated 6 or above by Ogren (except where noted), and should be avoided.
Allergy Plants to Avoid
Botanical Name / Common Name
- Amaranthus caudatus – love lies bleeding, tassel flower
- Chrysanthemum – chrysanthemum, daisy (numerous varieties)
- Hydrangea paniculata & querciflora – pee-gee and oak leaf hydrangea
- Thalictrum – buttercup
- Aster – aster
- Daucus carota – Queen Anne’s lace, wild carrot
- Carex – sedge
- Hedera – ivy
- Artemesia – wormwood, tarragon
- Doronicum – leopard’s bane
- Alyssum – alyssum
- Leontopodium alpinium – edelweiss
- Ligustrum – privet hedge
- Tanacetum – tansy, painted daisy
- Cryptomeria japonica – Japanese cedar
- Celosia – cockscomb
- Echinacea purpurea* – purple coneflower
- Syringa – lilac
- Matthiola – stocks
- Lavendula – lavender
* Rated 5. Use sparingly.
- Outdoor Allergies Resource Hub – a compilation of our best.
- Hay Fever Handbook – all you’ll need to cope.
- Trees that Make You Sneeze
- Stinging Insect Allergies – when is it a serious reaction?
Originally published in Allergic Living magazine.
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