Allergic and gardening....do you have to choose?
In my family, we have food allergies, allergic dermatitis, drug allergies, and in particular, ALLERGIC ASTHMA. I wondered if I could help my daughters' severely allergic asthma by changing how I gardened.
Myself, I can eat nearly anything (except a few certain drugs), touch anything (I've never had poison ivy), breathe anything (I may not enjoy the smell, but it won't hurt me). But when first one daughter then the other developed asthma as an toddler, I started to pay more attention to the types of allergens that can trigger asthma. My husband can't even mow the lawn without breaking out in hives wherever his skin has touched our ordinary grass, so the grass wasn't safe, and neither were the beds, the rugs, or stuffed animals, according to the allergist. What about the cat, I wondered, and what about all my plants? How does thinking about allergies change the way we garden? Could it? Would it? Does it?
After years of battling my daughters' asthma, and a traumatic visit to the allergist, it became clear that the family cat had to go. But how about the garden? The flowering bulbs that burst forth every spring? The perennials and flowering trees that I had been planning for, coddling, and enjoying for years? They could stay, I hoped.
"As certain trees burst into bloom in spring, their pollen wafts through the air in a wanton attempt to reach receptive blossoms. Millions of people with allergies pay the price, in sneezing, wheezing, coughing, drowsiness and itchy, watery eyes, " wrote Thomas Leo Ogren, in April, 2010. I was reading.
I learned that outdoor, inhaled allergens are as plain as the nose on your face...or as plain as the pollen in the flower. If you can see the individual grains of pollen, as you can in the first photo of the bee on the orange flower, below on the right, the grains of pollen are too big to be inhaled. The invisible pollen, produced by ash, maple, and other nondescript or "plain" flowers, is the pollen that causes havoc in your immune system.
More and more kids are diagnosed with asthma each year. It's not clear why, but as doctors shake their heads in concern at rising levels of air pollution, exhausted parents around the country numbly count respiration rates, administer albuterol or other "rescue drugs" and recite the list of possible triggers: dust mites (which can live in bedding, stuffed animals, upholstery, etc.), dust, molds, smoke, pollens (from ash, yew, maple, ragweed, goldenrod, alder and many others).
Pollen is the genetic material of one parent plant being transferred to the other parent plant to create fruit and seeds. In some plants pollen is transferred by insects (bees, butterflies, etc.) or wind-borne. In others, it moves within the plant or even within the flower. Think of the bees that buzz from one tomato blossom to the next, or the butterflies visiting brightly colored flowers. What you probably haven't seen is the butterflies visiting bamboo clumps or ornamental grasses!
Plants like bamboo, grasses, lawn grass, and any trees without prominent flowers are all the ones that make airborne pollen, the stuff that is measured in pollen counts. Pollen counts usually measure the local pollen count accurately for a brief period (hours or days), while molds, also highly allergenic, are more variable and harder to count. Most pollen tends to get "washed off" after a rain; whereas muggy, humid air has more particles suspended in it and thus, a higher pollen count.
Airborne pollen is carried for a long way! Pollen has been collected as far as 400 miles away from its parent plant. You may be allergic to your neighbor's ornamental grass, the hay field a mile away, or the factory in the next county. So while removing all the plants you are especially reactive to is probably a good idea, there is no guarantee of pollen-free air. And we wouldn't want pollen-free air, unless we lived in a sterile greenhouse where pollination had been replaced by vegetative procreation!
As I struggled to put together all the pieces of the allergic asthma puzzle, I did run across some tips to avoid pollen when it is everywhere:
- If possible, stay in an air-conditioned environment until pollen counts are lower. (And change the filter on your air conditioner.)
- If you must go out, do so when it's not windy, to avoid pollen being spread from one area to another.
- Avoid contaminating yourself with pollen--wear a hat, scarf, gloves, long pants, etc.
- If you do get pollen on yourself, wash it off before it gets everywhere! And wash everything you wore in hot water before wearing it again.
- Bathe after your pollen exposure. Wash your clothes and your hair before bed. Change your pillowcase frequently.
- Vacuum (with a HEPA-certified cleaner) and don't dust or sweep, which just stirs up dust particles.
- For more helpful information, try this link about airborne allergies, this link about allergic asthma, or this link to Thomas Ogren, or this one which you can read instead of order.
Jane Brody writes (for The New York Times) that from spring to fall, people in the Eastern United States who are allergic to pollen are miserable. "First [pollen] showers down from sunlit trees, then it flies up from drying grasses and finally, toward the end of summer and through the fall until the first frost, it explodes from flowering weeds," she wrote on April 4, 1995. But now I know, at least, that my poppies, peonies and petunias aren't to blame for her wheezing.
NB:This article is not intended to substitute for a physician's advice.
Cat portrait by hotblack at morguefiles.com.