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Allergy-Friendly Gardening    
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Do you love gardening, but suffer from acute hay fever? Perhaps you should plant an indigenous garden Spring is often synonymous with acute hay fever, so here are some sensible suggestions for surrounding yourself with low pollen producing , allergy friendly indigenous plants.

The new gardening mantra is "grow indigenous". Not only are most indigenous plants less costly to maintain, they are more cost effective in their water consumption and many have subsequently been termed water-wise plants. Beside these factors, there is also the aesthetic value to indigenous gardening. For the many who have not yet converted, here is another good reason to change over to indigenous and more specifically, to fynbos gardening. As someone who loves gardening, but is also an acute hay fever sufferer, I have come to know the value of an indigenous fynbos garden in combating hay fever.

But, what is hay fever and what causes it? Hay fever, or allergic rhinitis, having absolutely nothing to do with hay or running a fever, is simply the irritation or inflammation of the mucous membranes lining the nose. When an allergy-producing substance or allergen (such as dust, mould, mildew and pollen) is inhaled, your body reacts and defends itself by producing antibodies. These antibodies, when combined with the allergen, cause the body to release certain chemicals (like histamine) into the bloodstream. It is this chemical reaction that causes an allergic response, usually repetitive sneezing and a congested, itchy nose. Allergic responses can also affect the eyes, throat, palate, ears, and sinuses. Although you cannot prevent an allergy, you can prevent the reaction. A number of medications and treatments are available, but the most effective way is to try to avoid the allergen that triggers your allergic response.

The main culprit of seasonal hay fever is pollen. Not just any pollen though, it is only the small, light, dry, wind-borne pollen which causes an allergic reaction. This type of pollen is often produced by plain looking plants that do not have showy flowers but produce them in large quantities.
Those suffering from seasonal allergies can however enjoy a beautiful garden with minimal allergy symptoms if they choose the right plants. The solution is two-fold. Firstly, plant trees, shrubs and groundcovers with large flowers that may or may not be scented, that rely on animal or insect pollination and which have male parts recessed in the blossom. These plants produce large, sticky, heavy pollen grains in relatively small quantities that are too heavy to be carried by wind. Secondly, plant female dioecious (male and female organs occur on separate plants) plants that produce no pollen.

American landscape gardener, teacher and writer, Thomas Ogren is of the opinion that the severity of seasonal allergies is directly related to the increasing trend toward using male trees and shrubs in landscaping. Male dioecious plants are termed “litter free” since they do not soil sidewalks and parks because they don’t drop seed, seed pods, or fruit. Ogren argues that male dioecious plants generally produce large amounts of allergenic pollen. Furthermore, he says that in America, landscapers use only a handful of these male dioecious plants and as a result, Americans are being overexposed to the same type of pollen, which can create a sensitivity that ultimately leads to allergy. Ogren (see further reading list below) believes that female dioecious plants are natural air-cleaners as their flowers are 'positively charged' while airborne pollen is 'negatively charged' and their mutual attraction results in the removal of the potential allergy-causing pollen from the air.

We know that insect pollinated plants produce much smaller amounts of pollen than wind pollinated plants do. However, the Australian acacias (like rooikrans and Port Jackson) are 'imperfect' insect pollinated trees: although they are insect pollinated, they still release large quantities of pollen into the atmosphere. Pines, on the other hand, are totally wind pollinated. Both these plants are prime candidates for causing seasonal allergies in areas like the Western Cape where they have invaded.

Gardening in the Western Cape already has its allergy-friendly solution: indigenous fynbos gardening. The majority of fynbos plants are insect pollinated with beetles and flies forming an important and conspicuous component of the pollinator fauna. Bees, moths and to a lesser extent butterflies, are also found pollinating fynbos plants. Birds and mammals are also known to be important pollinating agents. Some of the Proteaceae and all the Restionaceae however, are dioecious and wind pollinated. The solution is simply to avoid the male pollen producing plants and choose only the female dioecious plants of these families for your garden. Also, avoid monoecious wind pollinated plants like Passerina.

So, if this doesn’t convince you of the health benefits of planting indigenous, allergy-friendly plants, I suppose the only alternative is to wear a mask when gardening; leave all gardening tools and your clothing outside; and shower immediately after working to help control your allergic reactions. That is, if you cannot avoid going outside during spring.

Article posted by: (31 August 2011)
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