Growing Concerns 255: Sneezy was wrong, goldenrod's innocent!

Late Spring!

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Case of Mistaken Identity Nothing to Sneeze At

Please, please don't ever recommend the planting of goldenrod! I was amazed when I saw it pictured in your column this May and named as an interesting plant to plant. I always thought it was a wild weed. Most hay fever sufferers have grown to hate it because it is one of the worst and most common causes of hay fever attacks.

If you can imagine sneezing hundreds of times a day, having your nose and eyes run constantly, using up tons of Kleenex, and actually starting to shake from weakness due to so much sneezing, then you'll have some idea of the absolute misery of a hay fever sufferer. Please print a warning about this to try to head off a lot of people planting goldenrod. D.R.

Such timing! Janet's in her third week of near-voicelessness, a side effect of allergies, so we know the misery that plant pollen can cause. Still, we stand by goldenrod -- literally -- without discomfort. So do specialists in plants and medicine, who know that plants such as goldenrod (Solidago species) with heavy, insect-carried pollen rarely cause allergic reaction. We're allergy sufferers who plant it without fear in many beautiful forms, and will continue to do so.

It's interesting to consider how an innocent plant got such a bad reputation. The myth is often explained this way -- goldenrod was named a troublemaker for keeping bad company. Goldenrod's showy yellow plumes open in concert with the inconspicuous greenish flowers of another meadow native, ragweed. Ragweed and its fellow artemisias, the true culprits, escape blame because no one notices them. Supposedly, people feel their allergy symptoms escalating, look out the window, and blame the first flower they see.

We don't think that way. Maybe "back when" people made that connection. Now, most people don't live near meadows and wouldn't know goldenrod from blackeye Susan. But most Americans have seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, usually as impressionable children. We blame Walt Disney for goldenod's bad name in modern times.

We blame Walt Disney for goldenrod's bad name.

Think about it. Dopey presents Snow White with a bouquet. Sneezy, standing nearby, looks at the flowers, utters a single, damning word -- "Goldenrod!" -- and begins to sneeze so violently that objects are propelled across the room. Recognize goldenrod, the plant? No way. Recall that dwarf's comical reaction in conjunction with a flower name? Certainly.

You and Janet, and the 20 percent of the U.S. population that has plant-related allergies need to know the truth. Plants to avoid are wind-pollinated. Grass, walnut trees, and junipers are just three whose blooms are not notable but should be, for the misery they cause. In Arizona, pollen counts jumped tenfold from 1965 to 1985. That's when that State's population boomed, in part because asthma and allergy sufferers were moving there for relief, and the newcomers planted lawns so they would feel at home!

Look for information about plants and allergies at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation http://www.aafa.org/index.cfm (1-800-7-ASTHMA). There is a lot of information about troubling plants in what was once a booklet available through AAFA and is now a book, "Allergy: Plants that Cause Sneezing and Wheezing" is now a book by Mary Jelks, available from book stores.

Or watch a garden for a season and take notes -- flowers visited by bees, butterflies, and other insects are safe bets for allergy sufferers. Flowers that produce puffs of yellow pollen when lightly tapped are to be avoided. Try sniffing, too -- heavily fragrant flowers are trouble for some people, not from any reaction caused by their pollen but from their scent.

Does the plant release yellow dust when you tap it? That's a wind-pollinated plant, a baaaaad plant for allergy sufferers. We should be choosing flowers with sticky, heavy, insect-carried pollen.
See bees on the goldenrod? Then the plant's relying on insects to carry its pollen -- so that pollen is not airborne, not going up your nose!

See bees on the goldenrod? Then the plant's relying on insects to carry its pollen -- so that pollen is not airborne, not going up your nose!

Often, allergy-safe plants are the showiest flowers in the garden, since visual attractiveness is a natural beacon to help insects home in on their targets. You'll be glad to realize that peony, magnolia, hibiscus, poppy, iris, hosta, daylily, delphinium, goldenrod, and salvia are okay to grow. On the other hand, it's an eye-opener -- or nose-closer -- to see the lightest, late April tap bring clouds of wind-driven pollen from that all-American favorite shrub, the yew.

 

Originally published 6/6/98

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