Allergies and Asthma Bloom for Gardeners

Vol. 13 •Issue 3 • Page 30
Home Pathways

Allergies and Asthma Bloom for Gardeners

The sounds of gritty dirt, overflowing watering cans and booming “achoos!” soon will spring out from winter’s deep chill.

Longer days and warmer weather signal people’s annual exodus to their gardens. But unfortunately for some, allergy and asthma attacks may accompany their green thumbs.

“Anybody who likes to garden is going to be exposed more than the average person to dirt, pollen, dust, mold and plants with odd odors,” said Tom Ogren, MS, a horticulturist and allergy researcher based in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “If a person goes outside in the right situation, they’re going to get bombarded. There are no two ways about it.”

Either as a hobby or a profession, landscapers, florists and gardeners can follow some advice to help prevent respiratory problems from blooming.

Work with Nature

“If you’re going to do gardening, you may as well have nature on your side,” said Mary L. Jelks, MD, FAAAAI, an aerobiologist and author of the book “Allergy Plants.”

She strongly urges people to use plants that are native to their region because they’ve adapted to the area’s extremes of temperature and precipitation. Non-native plants may need more care, and they might die more easily.

The greater attention required comes with increased contact with the plant’s pollen and other allergens. Using native plants helps to avoid this extra exposure and is a logical decision aesthetically, Dr. Jelks said. “It gives you a sense of place. Why make Florida look like New England?”

The flowers’ appearance also can come into play when determining how allergenic they are, she said. Insects pollinate bright plants with colorful flowers and perfume. Therefore, the pollen won’t be floating around aimlessly.

Plants that cause allergies usually have small and insignificant looking flowers and no color, said Dr. Jelks, who does pollen and mold counts in her hometown of Sarasota, Fla. These plants depend on the wind to carry their tinier and more buoyant pollen, and a greater amount of it gets dispersed in the air and into people’s lungs.

Before getting down and dirty in the garden, people should research what plants will more likely cause them problems, Ogren said. Often, people may not be aware of any potential dangers until they start coughing and get teary-eyed.

“Some hospitals will landscape their properties with extremely allergenic trees right up to patients’ windows,” he said. Elementary schools also have a reputation for planting ill-advised trees on their grounds.

To help people know the allergy potential of garden and landscape plants, he devised a ranking system, dubbed the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALS™). Using 120 criteria, such as the length of the bloom period and the size of the pollen grains, Ogren has ranked more than 5,000 plants.

“If you did a walkabout in your yard and you found several plants that were 8, 9 and 10,” he said, “you wouldn’t have to be much of a botanist to know if you dug them up and replaced them with something that was (a less harmful) 1, 2 or 3, it would make a sizable difference in your own airspace.”

Safe Sex

The plant’s sex also has prominence on Ogren’s OPALS scale.

Male plants produce pollen, and females make seeds. The floras come in two varieties: monoecious and dioecious. Monoecious (i.e., honey locust tree, oak) means it has the female and male sex on the same plant or tree; dioecious (i.e., junipers, red maples, mulberry, holly, willow) are separate sexed — one tree is all male, the other all female.

Nowadays, though, many people don’t want female plants because they can get messy with all the pods and berries they produce, he said. So through cuttings, grafting and budding, the horticulture industry can take a monoecious tree and make it completely male.

“It’s a creature that doesn’t exist in nature, but it exists heavy duty in landscaping,” said Ogren, who has authored several books, including “Safe Sex in the Garden” where the OPALS scale can be found.

This influx of male pollen producers can cause big problems for those people susceptible to allergy and asthma. As a possible solution, the industry has developed sterile male plants that don’t make any pollen, he said. These plants only can be produced by asexual means.

be prepared

On days with a high pollen count, people might want to restrict their activities to the early morning or late afternoon because pollen tends to peak in the middle of the day, said Jay M. Portnoy, MD, chief of the section of allergy, asthma and immunology, Children’s Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Mo.

Also, March and April make for more favorable months to start gardening, Dr. Portnoy said. Tree pollen may be in air, but there’s very little mold. When the weather starts to warm up and get more humid in May and June, mold counts go way up, and people start to have greater respiratory symptoms.

In addition to checking the clock and calendar, a quick look in the medicine cabinet can help gardeners prone to allergies and asthma. Antihistamines or nasal sprays can be used before outside activities, Dr. Portnoy said, and an inhaler should be kept close by in case of an asthma attack.

Right after a person finishes up for the day and comes in the house, he should quickly change his clothes and then take a hot shower. “If you get saturated with outdoor pollens and bring them indoors, you can turn a seasonal allergy into a year-round allergy,” he said.

The Great Outdoors

As long as gardeners take the proper precautions with their snipping, shoveling and pruning, they should be able to weed out any health risks, Dr. Portnoy concluded. Plus, fancying the flowers does a body good.

“It’s important to get the fresh air, and it’s important to get the exercise,” he said. “Gardening is low intensity, but it’s still good to get out there and do that kind of activity. It’s something to be encouraged.”

Mike Bederka is assistant editor of ADVANCE.

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