While the advent of Spring is welcomed by most people, for a significant portion of the population season change brings only dread. Bags and pockets will be filled with extra packets of tissues and allergy medicine. That’s right, hay fever season is here and with it come the usual blocked or runny noses, watery eyes, and bouts of uncontrollable sneezing.
One in five people in the UK now suffers from hay fever or seasonal allergic rhinitis for the medically minded. This means that approximately 12 million people are unable to enjoy weekend barbeques or even have a peaceful day relaxing in the garden. With this number on the rise, it is important to understand what hay fever is and what changes you can make in your garden to reduce the effects.
What are hay fever and pollen?
Hay fever is an allergic disorder triggered by the pollen of trees and grass as well as some moulds The immune system of a sufferer mistakes pollen for a harmful substance and reacts to protect the body from the perceived threat. Chemicals such as histamine are released into the bloodstream leading to swelling in the eyes, nose, and throat as well as starting an, almost, endless sneezing fit. This may be inconvenient to us when we want to enjoy the good weather after a long winter and in our day to day lives, however, this is our bodies’ way of protecting us by trying to trap and expel the invaders in our system.One in five people in the UK now suffers from hay fever or seasonal allergic rhinitis. Click To Tweet
So what is pollen, other than a ruiner of spring/summer moments?
Pollen is basically a plant’s reproductive cells. The high levels of protein present in pollen are what makes it such a potent allergenic. Whether it is airborne or carried by creatures which visit plants (insects, bees, birds) it is an essential part of the pollination process allowing female plants to reproduce, pollen carried by a 3rd party is generally larger and stickier than its airborne counterpart and as such does not pose as large a risk to those with respiratory issues or hay fever.
When is pollen/hay fever season?
Different plants pollinate at different times of the year but hay fever season generally starts in March and can last until October. Trees will usually start releasing pollen in early spring (March – April), grasses then add to this in late spring (April – May) and weeds take the position of rear-guard with their pollen being released during the summer months (June – August). Fungal mould spores are a little different, they prefer to send out spores when there is more moisture in the air during the later months of summer and the early months of Autumn (September – October/November).
Now that we have some of the basic information, let’s dive straight into the plants to look out for.
- Alder – Alder trees are usually found in damp places such as riverbanks and other water sources. They can start releasing pollen as early as the end of January but the peak period begins in March.
- Ash – Characterised by their silver/brown bark, ash trees will commonly grow near places with a good source of water such as streams. These trees only flower and release pollen for 2 weeks per year in March or April.
- Birch – Recognisable by the white bark, birch trees are usually found in wooded areas, forests, and parks. With one of the most allergenic pollens, you should pay extra attention to areas with these trees from the start of March.
- Hazel – Mostly found near the edges of woods but also a favourite of parks and ornamental gardens, the flowering and pollen season starts in January and can last until April.
- Lime tree – Popular in cities, ornamental gardens and wooded walkways due to their heart-shaped leaves and robust nature. The flowering and pollen season for the lime tree is mid to late June, but with little allergenic properties, the pollen generally does not cause a reaction.
- Oak – The iconic oak tree, known and revered throughout history for its strength as well as being the quintessential image of the English village. Beware this tree in April and May as this is its peak pollen releasing period.
- Sycamore – Sycamores are a popular choice in cities due to their pollution resistant nature and pretty, maple-like leaves. The typical flowering and pollen season of the sycamore ranges from March to May.
- Willow – Willow trees can generally be found next to bodies of water, with their branches hanging gracefully to create a natural pavilion. Pollen is released in March but can still be being released as late as June, although the pollen is not particularly allergenic there is a risk of a cross-reaction if there are trees such as Birch or Alder nearby.
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When it comes to releasing hay fever inducing pollen, very few plants are able to match the various species of grass prevalent in the UK. Almost 95% of allergic reactions to pollen are caused by grass, especially taller species and wild, meadow grass. The pollen season for grass is also one of the longest, starting in May and not ending until September with June/July being the peak period.Almost 95% of allergic reactions to pollen are caused by grass. Click To Tweet
- Nettle – A weed which everyone knows and every child fears, the stinging nettle. Usually found in untouched areas of gardens, waste ground and areas with high levels of nitrogen in the soil nettles pack a memorable sting and release their pollen from June – September. The good news is, the pollen is not very allergenic so at least you won’t be sneezing as you get stung!
- Sorrel, dock – Found everywhere from meadows to the coast, both sorrel and dock are common weeds/herbs with high chances of triggering an allergic reaction. The flowering and pollen season for these two plants is from April until September.
- Mugwort – Usually found growing on waste grounds as a small (up to 2 feet in height) shrub, mugwort pollen is highly allergenic and all but guaranteed to trigger a reaction. As a late bloomer, mugwort will usually start releasing pollen in late July until September.
- Rapeseed – A popular and visually stunning (imagine fields of shimmering golden yellow plants) agricultural crop, rapeseed can be a nightmare for hay fever sufferer’s as the pollen can be carried for tens of kilometres by the wind.
- Plantain – A small leafy, flowering herb with a low pollen count. The flowering and pollen season runs from May to September but is unlikely to cause a reaction unless grown in large quantities or near other plants with a high pollen count.
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Tips for an allergy-free garden
- Don’t plant wind-pollinated plants. Stick to plants such as fuchsia and hydrangeas to add splashes of colour to your garden. As for trees, try planting crabapple, pear or cherry trees as the pollen produced is not airborne.
- Replace or maintain your lawn. As mentioned previously, grass is the biggest culprit when it comes to hay fever inducing pollen. Consider replacing your lawn with decking, paving or artificial turf but if you want to keep the lawn make sure it is mowed regularly to stop the grass from flowering.
- Grow a salad or winter garden. One of the best ways to avoid pollen in the garden is to grow plants which do not produce airborne pollen, consider growing a salad garden using plants such as lettuce, beetroot, and runner beans. Alternatively, build a winter garden using elegant plants such as evergreens and winter flowering cherries.
- Use brightly coloured paint, fabrics, and plant pots. Instead of planting bright, colourful flowers try adding life to your garden by painting your fences, use vibrantly coloured fabrics on garden furniture and get creative with your plant pots.
- Don’t let pollen in. If you are going to be spending time in the garden be sure to wear a hat (to protect your head from the sun AND to stop pollen hitching a ride on your hair), when you are finished in the garden brush your hair and change your clothes to reduce the chances of bringing pollen into the house.
So there we have it. You now know that pollen is basically airborne plant reproduction cells, why your body reacts to pollen the way it does, which plants to be on the lookout for as well as a few tips on how to build a hay fever friendly garden!
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