Landscaping for the Allergy Sufferer

Don’t blame Acacia for your sneezing

Everybody blames the Acacia tree for their allergies but they are not the real culprits for the allergy sufferer. I didn’t realize just how much redwood pollen is dispersed at this time of year. After those horrific winds a while back my patios were covered with 2 inches of thick yellow redwood “flowers”. Actually the flowers are the male cone but boy, can they put out the pollen. Ask a friend who is highly allergic just how much her life is affected by our dear redwoods. And because redwoods live in such a narrow band of coast line, there is no allergy shot for those highly affected by them. But back to what you can do in your yard if you suffer from allergies.

Yes, the acacia trees are in full bloom. Being one of the first flowering trees we see they get our attention. Blooming acacias are often blamed as the cause of allergic reactions at this time of year but acacias are largely pollinated by insects and their heavy pollen doesn’t tend to become airborne. It’s the non-showy, quiet plants you have to watch out for. If you’re an allergy sufferer some plants are worse than others for you.

About 25-30 popular landscape plants are responsible for the majority of plant-related allergies in California. During the height of the pollen season- from late February to June- there are often thousands of pollen grains in every cubic meter of air. One can breathe hundreds of them with every breath. Though pollen can travel many miles, the majority tend to stay in the general area of their origin.

Redwoods are wind pollinated. Not good for the allergy sufferer.

Redwoods, oaks, alders, ashes and other wind pollinated trees like olives, birch, box elder, cypress, elm, juniper, maple, fruitless mulberry, pine, walnut, willow and privet are the major source of spring pollen. Most native plants are good in the sneezeless landscape but if you have bad allergies or asthma it best to avoid wind-pollinated ceanothus, elderberry and coffeeberry.

You may not be able to avoid those culprits growing on other properties but you can get the most out of your own backyard by creating a sneezeless landscape. Replacing existing plants may be impractical but planning future plantings with these things in mind will save you a lot of headaches down the road and let you enjoy the sunshine outside in your garden.

Flower type is a good way to judge plants. The best looking flowers usually cause allergy sufferers the fewest problems. Plants with bright, showy flowers are usually pollinated by insects, rather than by the wind. These flowers produce less pollen and their pollen is larger and heavier, sticking to the insect rather than becoming airborne and lead to sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes.

Some trees that are good for anti-allergy gardens are apple, cherry, dogwood, magnolia, pear and plum. Shrubs like azaleas, boxwood, lilac, rose-of-Sharon, hydrangea and viburnum are also not likely to cause problems. Good flower choices include alyssum, begonia, clematis, columbine, bulbs like crocus, daffodil, hyacinth. Also good are dahlia, daisy, geranium, hosta, impatiens, iris, lily, pansy, petunia, phlox, roses, salvia, snapdragon, sunflower, verbena and zinnia. Lawns of perennial rye grass, blue grass and tall fescue blends are usually OK as they will not flower unless allowed to grow to 12 inches or higher. Bermuda grass, on the other hand, can pollinate when the lawn is very short, sometimes as quickly as a few days after mowing.

We don’t know what’s going to happen rain-wise for us this spring. Symptoms can become worse for the allergy sufferer if the body reacts to the disappearance of the pollen following its initial appearance only to have to have more of it later in the spring. According to Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist with the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic, “You become sensitized to it, so when you’re…re-exposed, you can get an even more violent allergic reaction.”

Here’s to a sneezeless spring for you allergy sufferers.

What’s Blooming Now?

I confess I live vicariously through other people’s gardens mostly at this time of year. While I’m quite content to live in partial shade during the warm months of the year I miss having winter sun to jump start the early spring show of flowers. Everything arrives later in my garden. My flowering cherry and plums never disappoint but I see the fragrant winter daphne already in full bloom in Ben Lomond. I have plant envy.

Edgeworthia chrysantha

If you yearn for fragrant flowers have I got the plant for you. Paperbush Plant or Yellow Daphne as it’s sometimes called (Edgeworthia chrysantha) is related to daphne and shares that intoxicating scent. My friend has one of these. You know, the friend who shall remain nameless but writes the food column for this paper. Anyway, hers is starting to open and those butter-yellow flower clusters are as unique as anything you’ll ever see.

This deciduous shrub makes a fine backdrop in a dappled shade garden. Later in the spring it will fill out with slender blue-green foliage that turns yellow in the fall. Edgeworthia transforms into a glorious neatly mounding shrub in the summertime. Even the bark rises to the occasion being both beautiful and useful. Used for wallpaper and calligraphy paper now, historically it was used to make Japanese bank notes. You can even use the supple stems in wreaths as they are easily knotted.

Variegated Winter Daphne

I had to wait a couple years for my variegated winter daphne to settle in before setting flowers. This winter the flower clusters are about ready to open. There’s something special about a plant that will bloom in winter, hold up to rain and scent the garden all at the same time. With beautiful rosy-pink flower clusters and attractive yellow-margined variegated foliage, winter daphne make a great foundation plant for dappled shade gardens. They are deer resistant and have low water requirements during the summer. What’s not to love?

helleborus orientalis

Also here in my own garden the hellebore flowers are holding up well. One of my favorites is called Cinnamon Snow but I have a couple that bloom with spectacular double flowers they are beautiful also. All of the varieties of this buttercup relative accept wind, rain, cold and less than perfect soil while getting by with only moderate watering in the shady summer garden. Deer aren’t attracted to them either.

Another tough plant that can take weather extremes is the Lily-of-the-Valley shrub (Pieris japonica). There are many varieties of this early winter bloomer. Some have pure white flowers, other sport various shades of pink or dark rose. Mine is the smaller variegated foliage model with dainty, drooping clusters of pure white flowers in early spring. Right now it is covered with flower buds so dense that you’d think it was already blooming. The new growth in the spring has a beautiful pink tint. This shrub will hold up to the wildest weather. Another plus for the Lily-of-the-Valley shrub is that is useful for fire-scaping in the landscape and it isn’t on the menu for deer either.

A favorite of birds and indoor floral arrangers is the evergreen mahonia. Plant a mahonia if you want to attract winter hummingbirds. They are blooming now with bright yellow flower clusters that will last for months. Each flower will set a purple berry looking like a cluster of grapes. The edible berries make good jelly, too. There are 70 varieties of mahonia including our own native Oregon Grape which grows in the understory of Douglas fir forests. Mahonia aquifolium is resistant to summer drought, tolerates poor soil and doesn’t create a lot of leaf litter.

Love Is In The Air

Daffodils

One of my favorite classes when I attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo was Plant Taxonomy. On the surface the subject sounds a little dry but the professor was all about plant reproduction which is quite exciting and more varied than you think. So with Valentine’s Day upon us here are some interesting facts about how plants get together and how you can help.

Red flowering quince

If you’re like me you’ve caught a case of pre-spring fever. How can we help it when the flowering plums are covered with hundreds of blossoms, the saucer magnolia flowers are already open, the flowering quince are in full bloom and every acacia in the county is blooming. It’s fascinating to mark time with events in the botanic world. There’s even a word for it- Phenology. Websites like USA National Phenology Network at http://www.usanpn.org/ offer lots of information on the subject.

Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal variations in climate. When do they occur each year? Phenology is a real science that has many applications. In farming and gardening, phenology is used chiefly for planting times and pest control. Certain plants give a cue, by blooming or leafing out, that it’s time for certain activities, such as sowing particular crops or insect emergence and pest control. Often the common denominator is the temperature.

Indicator plants are often used to look for a particular pest and manage it in its most vulnerable stages. They can also be used to time the planting of vegetables, apply fertilizer, prune and so on.

Here are some common garden plants and what they indicate:

When daffodils begin to bloom, sow peas.
When dandelions bloom, plant spinach, beets and carrots.
When lilac leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, sow peas, lettuce and other cool-weather crops.
When lilacs are in full bloom, plant beans.
Once lilacs have faded, plants squash and cucumbers.
When apple trees shed their petals, sow corn.
When dogwoods are in full bloom, plant tomatoes, peppers and early corn.
When bearded iris are in bloom, plant peppers and eggplants.
When locust and spirea bloom, plant zinnia and marigolds.
When forsythia and crocus bloom, crabgrass is germinating. When this happens the soil temperature at a depth of 4″ is 55 degrees. Treat with an organic pre-emergent.
When crocus bloom, prune roses and feed your lawn.
Mexican bean beetle larvae appear when foxglove flowers open.

Magnolia soulangeana blooming at Filoli Garden

Record your own observations at https://budburst.org/ to start a data base for our area. Another great site is National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service at https://attra/ncat.org/ Sites like these can also help you design orchards for pollination and ripening sequence, design for bee forage plantings, design perennial flower beds and wildflower plantings as well as plantings to attract beneficial insects and enhance natural biological control. How cool is that?

But back to plant reproduction. Mosses reproduce from male and female mosses which produce spores. Conifers produce two type of cones on the same tree. Wind blows the pollen to another cone which combine to make a baby conifer which lives in a seed inside the cone.

Blireiana flowering plum

Then there are the most advanced plants – the flowering plants. Some flowering plants have both male and female flowers. They are monoecious meaning “single house”. Dioecious plants have male flowers on one plant and female flowers on another. Plants that rely on flowers for reproduction are very dependent on outside help such as insects and animals which is where we come in. Be a citizen scientist in your own backyard.

The February Garden

Just one of my my many Merriam’s chipmunks

The battle is on. I’ve gotten new bird feeders in an effort to thwart the squirrels. Hopefully, I’ve slowed them down. The chipmunks are so cute I’ve just given them free range. The suet feeders attract beautiful Townsend warblers daily in addition to pygmy nuthatches, chickadees, juncos, purple finches and lesser goldfinches. Did you know that lesser goldfinches are perfect mimics and can belt out the songs of 15 different birds in succession? Amazing.

banana slug

I have an Autumnalis flowering cherry that’s in full bloom again for the third time in a year. I love this tree. I’ve had to up my banana slug relocation program efforts during this moist weather. They are scavengers feeding on detritus and small dead insects on the forest floor so I’m sure they are happy when I relocate them to other parts of my property. Banana slugs reproduce year round. They live up to 7 years and move over 6 inches per minute which seems slow until you relocate one and within a short time it’s back on the patio.

Flowering maple outside my backdoor.

The hummingbirds are happy with the flowering maples (Abutilon) that bloom nearly year round plus I have several nectar feeders to provide food until the flowers in the garden start to bloom. I’m waiting patiently for the buds on my pink flowering currant to start showing color. They’re still pretty small at this stage but I’ve assured my hummingbird population that soon they will have long clusters of nectar-rich flowers to visit. When I was out pruning last week I didn’t touch this plant otherwise I’d have cut off all those potential flower clusters loaded with nectar. This is what I did do in my garden.

The mild-ish winter, so far at least, has encouraged many of my plants, normally still dormant at this time of year, to start growing for the season. What’s a gardener to do when the roses, fuchsias, oakleaf hydrangeas and many other plants aren’t even dormant?

Cut back woody shrubs to stimulate lush new growth. Trim plants like Mexican bush sage and artemisia to within a few inches of the ground. Don’t use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though. Lightly prune those after blooming later in the season and don’t cut back to bare wood inside the plant.

Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. My fuchsias were starting to grow and bloom already so this was hard for me to do but because fuchsias bloom on new wood it was necessary. Container fuchsias can be cut back almost to the pot rim. Do this right away if you haven’t already done so.

My hydrangeas in back. I might have gone overboard that winter with the soil acidifier.

Cut back hydrangeas stems that bloomed last year and apply a soil acidifier if you want the flowers blue. Although aluminum sulfate is the traditional favorite for quickly acidifying soil it’s not as kind to beneficial soil microorganisms. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are better for your soil.

Don’t prune spring flowering shrubs like lilac, weigela and spirea or flowering trees such as cherry, plum and crabapple now. These and evergreens like rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias should be pruned after they flower. You can cut some branches while they are blooming to bring into the house for bouquets.

Wait to prune back perennials that may have their new foliage damaged in a late frost. Same goes for shrubs that might have gotten hit by frost. That damaged foliage can protect the plant from further frost damage. Mid-March is the estimated date of hard frost in our area or at least it used to be. We gardeners are always betting Mother Nature will go our way and our efforts will not have gone in vain.

Prune fruit, nut, shade trees and deciduous vines like clematis.

Cut back ornamental grasses. I’m pruning California fuchsia, salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ and hummingbird sage now. They look okay now but I want the encourage new, compact growth.

So that’s what’s happening in my world. How about yours?