Gardening Tips: Where’s all that pollen coming from?

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It looks like I made it back from my trip to Arizona just in time for the start of spring pollen season. Those of us who suffer from allergies dread this time of year, but before you go cutting down every flowering plant you see, let’s look at where the pollen comes from.
Much of the pollen that we’ve been seeing on vehicles comes from pine trees, loblolly and longleaf in particular, though oak and many other types of trees and shrubs contribute to the mess. Every flowering plant produces pollen when it is in bloom to some degree, but it is often plants that have less showy flowers that produce the most pollen. This is certainly the case with pine and oak. Many people don’t realize these plants even have flowers. They do, of course, they are just less showy and eye catching then the flowers on plants like azalea or dogwood.
The high amount of pollen in the air and on the ground makes it hard on people with allergies. Watery eyes, itchy eyes and of course sneezing are common this time of year for those who suffer with pollen. But it’s important to know that what most allergy sufferers are allergic to are plants that produce a specific type of pollen- light, dry pollen granules easily transported by wind. Pine pollen is often heavy and wet, and falls quickly to the ground, so while it is messy it doesn’t cause our sinuses many problems. Pollen from azaleas and dogwoods and most other common landscape plants is sticky and is transferred mainly by insects, rarely getting into the air where it can inhaled in by humans. The pollen that triggers most people’s allergy symptoms mainly comes from trees like oak, ash, elm, hickory, sumac and boxelder, as well as ragweed and summer blooming grasses.
I myself am an allergy sufferer and I’m prone to major outbreaks of sneezing and itchy eyes at this and other select times of the year. However, I get a chuckle when people ask me why I got into horticulture if my allergies are so bad. Yes, my job and my hobby of gardening at home takes me outside more then many people, but it’s not the plants in my yard that set off my allergy symptoms. I’m no more likely to be sneezing and rubbing my eyes at this time of year from gardening then I would if I was outside playing catch with my son, taking my dog for a walk, going for a run, or participating in any other outdoor activity. So don’t let allergy issues discourage you from gardening, just try to recognize which plants, or at least which times of the year, cause you the most aggravation and try to take precaution when those plants are in bloom.
In next week’s column I’ll talk about all the interesting plant life and landscaping I saw on my trip to Arizona- it was very different than anything we see in North Carolina!
Matthew Stevens is the horticulture extension agent for Halifax County Cooperative Extension. If you have any questions about this article or other aspects of your home gardening, please contact Matthew at 583-5161 or matt_stevens@ncsu.edu.