You may not have to hide inside if you have mild pollen or mold allergies.
Most people don't know what they're allergic to, only that they are allergic to "something that's blooming" or that they always have "colds this time of year." Allergy testing only takes an hour or two and can pinpoint the source of allergies. If you know which plants you're allergic to, obviously you should avoid those, but it's not always quite that easy.
Basic types of pollen transport:
- Animals - Plants that depend on animals for pollination produce bright, showy, and/or aromatic flowers to attact insects and birds to food, usually nectar. Large grains of sticky pollen adhere to the animals who carry it on to other flowers. According to the Smithsonian, 90% of all plants rely on animals to deliver pollen.
- Birds - Flowers tend to be larger and produce more nectar than those that are pollinated by insects because birds depend on visual cues.
- Butterflies and moths - Butterflies rely more on visual cues (bright, showy flowers) and moths rely more on scent (aromatic flowers).
- Bees and wasps - These insects depend on visual cues, sometimes in the ultraviolet range.
- Beetles - Beetles prefer large, scented flowers and may eat the flowers.
- Flies and mosquitoes - Most species prefer wildflowers, some are attracted to flowers that smell like carrion.
- Wind - When the plant depends on wind for pollination, the male plants produce large amounts of small, dry pollen that is carried by the wind to the flowers, which tend to be inconspicuous.
It's the wind-borne pollen that causes the most allergy problems. Most trees and grasses are wind-pollinated.
The good news:
Nectar plants for butterflies
are not likely to be a problem for allergy sufferers.
Zeroing in on the Bad Guys
Basic types of flowers oversimplified:
- Each flower has a functional stamen and pistil. The flower is both male and female.
- Each flower has either a stamen and a pistil or has both but only one is functional. The flower is either male or female.
- Both male and female flowers are on one plant. The plant is both male and female.
- Plants have either male or female flowers but not both. The plant is either male or female.
This leads us to:
- Plants that only have female flowers are not pollen producers.
- Plants that have both male and female flowers only need the pollen to get from one part of the plant to another.
- Plants that have only male flowers have the greatest potential to cause allergy problems. Males are the pollen producers and because pollination is more difficult between plants they have to produce more pollen and it's often the type that is easily wind-borne: smaller and drier.
This is why male plants are considered the bad guys. But even amongst the bad guys, some are worse than others. If they only bloom for a few days each year, they don't compare to those that bloom for multiple seasons.
The function of male plants is to produce pollen, not seeds or fruit.
The good news:
We want seeds and fruit for our wildlife gardens and these are the ones with a lower allergen potential.
More good news:
We probably aren't allergic to most of the plants that do produce pollen.
Then there's molds. Molds hide in mulch and compost and the soil in potted plants and ... mold spores float around in the air. It's Florida, it's moist, mold is happy.
Beyond Your Control
- Allergists suggest forgoing mulch and composting. If your allergies are severe, you may have to. If not, you may be okay if you just don't go out of your way to disturb it.
- Recognize which of your gardening tasks are best left to allergy-free garden helpers.
Even if you have no plants in your garden that produce wind-borne pollen, mold spores and pollen are probably in the air. In Florida, there are problems year round.
- The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology offers detailed pollen counts for some cities. Sign up (it's free) to see the counts for specific plants and molds and also optionally have the counts mailed to you.
- You can get a four-day pollen count for your area at pollen.com, including a list of the predominant pollen producers each day. The site also offers lists of flowering plants during each season with information about how likely the plant is to cause allergic reactions as well as profiles and photographs of the plants.
- Your allergies are your allergies and you may find that pollen counts are too general for your use. It isn't as simple as "high count Somewhere, USA" and that high count affecting you specifically -- there are other factors involved.
- Remember I'm not a doctor and I'm not you. Please do what's best for yourself. If you choose to proceed, do so with caution.
- Choose plants you know you are not allergic to.
- When selecting plants for a low allergen garden, those that are insect-pollinated are best.
- When in the garden, avoid activities that stir up pollen and mold, such as mowing, brushing against or trimming hedges, and raking.
- When you go indoors, remember that you're bringing in pollen and mold spores that are on your clothes and in your hair.
- If the counts for something you're allergic to are too high for you, particularly if it's a windy day, just stay indoors.
- If pollen-producing plants that you are allergic to are near open windows or doorways, it may be best to relocate them particularly if you can't avoid them.