January 15, 2009

Allergy Season Already?!

Is it possible that allergy season has begun here in Spokane, despite freezing temperatures and lingering snow? Unfortunately, coniferous evergreens like juniper, pine, spruce and arborvitae (pictured above) begin releasing pollen in late winter. As a one-woman allergy meter, I have my own way of marking the start of allergy season. Persistant nasal drip, itchy eyes, frequent headaches? Yes, yes and yes. And so it begins.

Coniferous evergreens produce large amounts of dry, lightweight pollen from male cones. Do you see the tiny brown male cones in the picture above? Since these plants don't rely on insects as pollenators, their pollen is designed to fly with the wind over large distances. This type of pollen is especially good at causing allergies because there's so much of it, it stays airborn for a long time, and it sticks easily to moist nasal surfaces.

Not all conifers are equally allergenic. On the OPALS allergy scale (where 10 is the most allergenic), arborvitaes (Thuja) are rated at an 8. But pines (Pinus) and spruces (Picea) are rated at just 4 and 3, respectively. Pine and spruce pollen have a waxy coating that make them less irritating to human noses. So the dwarf Alberta spruces in the above photo probably aren't the ones giving me problems.
Some of the worst coniferous allergy offenders are male juniper and male cypress plants (Juniperus), which are both rated at a misery-causing 10 on the OPALS scale. Chinese junipers were the aesthetic bane of decades past. Thankfully there aren't many of them planted in my newer subdivision. The overgrown junipers below are located several blocks from my home.

If you find your allergies flaring in late winter, you'll find Allergy-Free Gardening, by Thomas Leo Ogren, to be a great help. Professor Ogren has created allergy ratings on numerous plants and gives suggestions on how to find allergy relief. His work is especially important in light of the increasing allergy and asthma problems in the United States.
Someday I'll shell out for a course of allergy-reducing shots. But even after that, I'll stick to plants with low allergy ratings. Best wishes to my fellow - sniff, sniff - allergy sufferers!
You're welcome to use any of the pictures from this post if you'll list vwgarden.blogspot.com as the source.


  1. Very interesting. That is one thing I do not have-allergies. I feel for you though.

  2. This is so informative! We have two arborvitae in front and 3 on the back deck. We have one rug juniper by the front walk, too.

    Thanks for sharing this information!

  3. Great post VW. We have allergies here, too. My son and I suffer the most--mainly spring and fall. He gets allergy shots once a week; I stopped recently because I think I'm doing better, but spring will tell me for sure:)

    As for those Junipers--We had them around the entire house when we moved here. There were the ground covering ones, and the tall bushes as well. I pulled out (with great difficulty) and dug up, as well as cut roots, of all the 'creeping ones' and planted a garden in their place. When we extended our back deck, we removed the tall bushes. I totally dislike Junipers, for whatever reason:) They are one plant that has brought me difficulty...lots of reasons, won't mention them here. Sometimes they look pretty...but in my experience they didn't;( (I hope you don't have any Junipers you like because I really don't want to offend you!!!)

  4. I haven't been good about commenting on comments but will try to do better . . .
    Tina - I'm glad allergies don't bother you! That's a happy thing for a gardener.
    Cameron - There are some beautiful junipers & arborvitae out there now, and the female cultivars don't produce pollen. It's often hard to find the gender of the plant, though.
    Jan - Goodness, no, you won't offend me with opinions about plants (I have plenty of my own, too!). What a chore it must have been to pull those shrubs out - no wonder you have back pain. I'm glad to hear that allergy shots are helping you.
    Regards, VW

  5. VW .. hey girl you are funny too ! .. I think gardeners have to have a sense of humour or they just aren't good gardeners .. who else would taunt and tease mother nature the way we do and think we can get away with it ?
    You actually lived in a zone 9 and it was real ?? I keep thinking there are no such zones and some one thought them up just to be funny and torment the rest of us 'earthlings".
    I will say that we did live on Vancouver Island for a couple of years .. but sadly I was not a gardener then .. just a 'mom' the most under rated job of a life time and yet the most important .. besides finding new substitutes for my fudge habit (sshhhh !)
    My blog is so far from a garden blog right now it is shameful (that is why I eat fudge .. during the down season .. to cope with garden withdrawal stress) .. any who .. you have a nice little neat blog here and I shall be back .. I promise not to be so chatty next time .. I might even talk garden speak ? : )
    PS .. they grow up like weeds (kids that is) don't they ? LOL

  6. Hi VW, that is very interesting, I didn't know that about conifers. It must be very difficult if they are all around and the pollen drifts in the air. I am fortunate not to have allergies myself but for the sake of visitors I shall check out Orgren's book. Isn't gardening amazing and rich in that it has so many different aspects? Now allergenic (is that a word?) can be added to my list.
    Hi Jan, I don't like junipers either - it's an aesthetic thing. I don't do conifers at all, although they are found in quite a few gardens round here.

  7. Allergies. What a downer. I've almost purchased Ogren's book before and your post is making me realize I need to shell out the $20.00. I did a garden design last fall where one of the couple's young daughters had severe allergies, so they didn't want anything that produced pollen or attracted bees (and all plants had to be low water, full sun and deer resistant). It was one of the hardest planting plans I've ever had to do. I'm impressed by your knowledge on the topic. Do your allergies get better in the summer?

  8. Thanks for your welcome when I recently joined Blotanical VW. I have enjoyed having a browse here. I did not realise that conifers can cause allergic reactions and so early in the year ! I have seasonal hayfever so you have my every sympathy.

  9. Interesting... I book marked the Allergy-Free Gardening book. I've had off and on allergy symptoms this time of year for decades but never really thought I had allergies. This year I got skin testing done and yes I am very allergic to... Junipers! (and cedar and cypress and alder/birch)I have cypress in my yard but my neighbors have juniper so I don't think I'll be able get much relief.

    I know what you mean about getting the shots... it can take up to 5 years to be effective! I'm using a saline nasal rinse and a RX for a corticosteriod as needed. Watching the pollen counts and taking precautions is makeing this year a lot easier to breath for me. Thanks! Enid

  10. I never knew that they caused allergies! Thanks for the very informative post...maybe this is why the spouse is ailing. gail


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