In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
April, 2008
Regional Report

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The flowers of ornamental grasses can cause allergies.

Sneezin' Season

Sneezing and sniffing, itching and scratching ... yes, my friends, it's allergy season. Although they are beautiful and a harbinger of spring, those darned acacia trees start the action in mid-February, with the pines, olives, and eucalyptus soon following. Sometimes on a windy day you can actually see the pollen blowing down from the pine trees in a yellow cloud. If that doesn't get your eyes watering, you don't need to read this column.

The Problem
According Tom Ogren, author of Allergy Free Gardening, the pollen count has risen over the past 100 years. The reason for this is that landscape designers are selecting and planting only male plants, which are the pollen producers. The female plants make the seed. Male plants are chosen because they don't drop fruit all over the ground. The gingko is a perfect example. If you have ever taken a whiff of the soft, squishy fruit that drops from the female gingko, you know what I mean. Its odor is reminiscent of dog doo. For that reason, landscape designers try to plant only male trees that don't develop fruit.

Another example is the podocarpus, a distant relative to the Pacific yew tree, which is the source of a toxic chemotherapy drug. The male podocarpus trees produce huge amounts of pollen that blows freely on the wind. In nature, the female plants would attract this pollen, like a magnet. But because nobody plants female podocarpus trees, the pollen produced by the male plants just drifts around in the air. The problem with the podocarpus pollen is that it causes severe reactions in people who are allergic to it.

Ornamental grasses are another cause of seasonal allergies. Although the seed heads are beautiful, you may want to reconsider before planting purple fountain grass (pennisetum) and other ornamental grasses in your garden if you suffer from allergies.

The Solution
Almost all commercial and governmental landscaping utilizes male, pollen-producing plants. Without the female plants to ease the wind-blown pollen situation by attracting the pollen, we are doomed to sneeze our way through pollen season, year after year.

Honeybees to the Rescue!
If you have a farmers' market nearby, the best thing you can do if you suffer from allergies is to purchase, and consume, honey made by local bees. These bees gather and process pollen from orchards and vineyards that are close to you, those same orchards that are causing you to sneeze and itch. When you consume honey made from local pollen, you are immunizing yourself against that particular type of pollen.

In San Mateo, for example, there is a group called the Beekeepers Guild of San Mateo (http://www.sanmateobee.org). In addition, there are beekeeping guilds all over the state that sell their honey at various farmers' markets and produce stores. San Francisco even has honey that is broken down into individual neighborhoods. You can actually purchase Castro Street, Delores Park, Pacific Heights, or Cow Hollow honey, or you can try the San Francisco City Limits Blend. It sells for $9 for 8 ounces or 3 ounces for $3.50. To order, go to: http://www.citybees.com.

If you suffer from seasonal allergies, give local honey a try. It may take a few weeks to build up your immunity, but the side effects won't make you drowsy or keep you awake at night like allergy medicines. And think how happy you will make all those local beekeepers!


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