Smart Plant and Tree Choices for an Allergy-Friendly Garden

Being allergy-sensitive doesn't mean you can't have a beautiful garden. Here are numerous candidates that people who are vulnerable to pollen can enjoy.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bruce Leander for Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Photo By: DK - Garden Design © 2009 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: Elisabeth Rawald

Photo By: Image courtesy of The National Christmas Tree Association

Photo By: Photo courtesy of Ball Horticultural Company

Hydrangea and Ferns

The best plants for an allergy-friendly garden are those that don't produce airborne pollen. Plants such as hydrangea that have sticky pollen or plants with no pollen at all, such as ferns, are the best bets. Hydrangea is a deciduous shrub or vine that comes in hundreds of varieties. The big leaves are three to six inches long and its clusters of long-lasting flowers can be white, pink, red or blue. They require full sun to partial shade and are easy to grow in rich, porous soil.

Carolina Jessamine

Carolina jessamine is an evergreen vine that climbs 10 to 20 feet on a trellis, arbor or wall. The tubular flowers are vibrant yellow and one to two inches long, keeping the pollen deep inside so insects, rather than wind, spread the pollen. The leaves are shiny and light green on long branches that will cascade and swing in the wind. They like full sun and look best if watered regularly.

Low-Allergy Trees

Ironbark is an evergreen tree that's a favorite in arid climates. Avoid planting in wet or clay soil. Varieties range from short shrubs to towering trees, which can grow more than 100 feet tall. Eucalyptus has a small pink flower that blooms from mid-fall to late spring. Crape myrtle, flowering crabapple, cherry, pear, dogwood and magnolia are also good choices for low-allergy trees.

Bulbs

Bulbs are great for an allergy-friendly garden because they tend to have showy flowers. Master gardener Pam Geisel explains that "since non-showy flowers aren't attractive to bee pollinators, they've evolved to the barbed form in order to be wind pollinated and carried off into the air. Bulbs also bloom at a time when there's not a lot of background pollen in the air so your exposure level is a lot lower. Look for daffodils, tulips, snowdrops, calla lilies, dahlias, tuberous begonias, Asiatic lilies, hyacinths, and crocuses, among others." As a general rule, the bigger the bulb, the bigger the flower. Getting kids with allergies involved in choosing and planting bulbs is a great way for them to learn about fall gardening without triggering uncomfortable reactions in the spring.

Small Deciduous Trees

Horticulturist and writer Lindsay Bond Totten says "redbud [pictured], hawthorn, fringetree and dogwood are among the best small deciduous trees for allergy sufferers. Others include crabapple, golden-rain tree, dawn redwood and flowering pear." She also suggests flowering shrubs such as shrub dogwoods, cotoneaster, deutzia, rose-of-Sharon, flowering quince, bluemist shrub and butterfly bush. Bond Totten adds "Believe it or not, roses make the non-allergenic list — just don't stick your nose right into the center of open blossoms."

"Two-House" Plants

Horticulturist Maureen Gilmer explains "Some plants are diecious, which means 'two houses,' because they produce male flowers on one plant and the female parts on another. Diecious species include olive, cottonwood, willow and sumac [pictured]." In these types of plants, males produce pollen and females produce seeds so growing only the latter is best for allergy sufferers.

Check the Ratings

Author of Allergy-Free Gardening, Thomas Leo Ogren is also creator of the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALSTM), the first and only numerical plant-allergy ranking system. He rated species of plants on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being severely allergenic. According to his findings, "A few examples of trees with a rating of 1-3 are firs, cedars, and strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), as well as the fruit trees like apricots, avocados, peaches, plums, nectarines, persimmon, pineapple, guava, but also almonds and flowering red leaf plums, bronze loquat, and flowering pears. Also the female trees of ash, Chinese fringe tree, Chinese pistache, junipers, some named maples, palms, podocarpus, poplars, sour gum or tupelo, and willows. Some of the worst trees are acacia, alder, beech, birch, buckeye, CA pepper, camphor, catalpa, Chinese evergreen elm, cypress, liquidambar, mimosa, oak, olive, pecan, sycamore, walnut and zelkova."

Pollen-Free Lawn Grasses

Ogren's findings also have impacts on kids and dogs playing in the yard. "Common Bermuda grass produces considerable pollen, even if kept mowed low. A better choice would be hybrid Bermuda grass, as these make little or no pollen. Another good choice is one of the female clones of Buffalograss, such as '609', 'Legacy' or 'UC Verde' as these are pollen-free lawn grasses," says Ogren.

Go Totally Tubular

Stick with traditional snap dragons and long, tubular flowers like foxglove and honeysuckle [pictured] where the pollen is enclosed or very deep and not readily accessible. The flowers of hybrids are open and the pollen is easily released. For a more detailed list of landscape plants rated for their allergen potential, consult Thomas Leo Ogren's book, Allergy-Free Gardening.

Grow Little Gardeners

As a DIYer, you probably have a garden. You're surely growing little DIYers as well so why not put the two together for some fun and productive family time? Regardless of who suffers from allergies, have your kids pick out some allergy-friendly plants or trees and get them involved in their care.

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