Diarmuid Gavin's pollination plan to reduce hay fever symptoms
Reduce hay fever suffering by choosing insect-pollinated plants over wind ones
Every year at the Chelsea Flower Show, some of the garden designers and their teams can be seen with tears streaming down their faces. It's not always because their pond is leaking, or that their main specimen tree has been damaged en route from a European nursery, or even that they haven't won the medal they felt that they deserved.
Most often it's the fault of a plant that's one of the scene setters for the Chelsea show - the magnificent London plane trees that are planted down the back of main avenue and form a leafy backdrop to many show gardens in the Royal Hospital. In mid-May, the London Planes release their pollen and, on sunny days the air frizzles with it, causing tears, sneezing, coughing and sore throats among hay fever sufferers. On site it's known as the Chelsea cough. And when you've so much else on your mind, it's deeply unpleasant.
One doesn't consider the effect of fairly visually insignificant flowers on trees when planning a garden. But if you suffer from hay fever you really should, as the effects can be quite debilitating.
According to the Asthma Society of Ireland, one in ten Irish people suffer from hay fever. If you're allergic to something your body reacts when you come into contact with the trigger. With hay fever sufferers that happens through wind-pollinated plants such as grasses, flowers and trees. Pollen is obviously hugely important to plants, aiding the propagation of millions of species.
As a gardener who loves being outdoors for work or pleasure, I've always thanked my lucky stars that I haven't been affected, except in the most casual of ways. Because if you do suffer, it's not pleasant. I have memories of being a youngster and playing football on the local green with my brother. Occasionally his face would swell, and nose and eyes stream. For the rest of the day he'd be confined to the house.
The reaction causes cold-like signs and symptoms such as runny noses, itchy eyes, congestion, sneezing, and sinus pressure, usually during spring and summer. If you are suffering from February onwards, it could be tree pollen that you are allergic to. But it may also be the tiny flowering grasses in a lawn, a feature of most gardens that many people don't even consider as a collection of plants.
It may also be wild flowers (or weeds) such as nettles, plantain and dock which can extend the period of suffering until September. This is particularly bad news for gardeners, but there are a number of ways you can garden to reduce the problem.
All plants produce pollen which is their method of reproducing. Some wait for insects to come and pollinate them, while other plants need to be wind-pollinated and it is this brigade that causes hay fever. Once the fine, light pollen is air-borne, it is easily inhaled. Nearly all our native trees are air-pollinated so you need to avoid alder, ash, birch, beech, hazel, juniper, lime, oak, pine, poplar, plane, horse chestnut, walnut, yew and sycamore.
Choose instead insect-pollinated trees and shrubs, all the ones we know are attractive to bees and butterflies - azalea, berberis, buddleia, ceanothus, cistus, cornus, cotoneaster, cytisus, escallania, fuchsia, hebe, holly, lavatera, lavender, mahonia, potentilla, prunus, pyracantha, chaenomeles, ribes, rhododendron, rubus, rose, skimmia, spirea, syringa, ulex, viburnum, and weigela.
There are plenty of low-allergen herbaceous plants as well. The daisy family, including chrysanthemums and daisies, should be avoided. Suitable species include agapanthus, hemerocallis, heucera, aquilegia, hardy geraniums, hostas, iris, salvia, delphinium, alchemilla, campanula, dicentra (above) and geum. Many herbs are insect-pollinated and hence suitable as well.
Grasses are usually the worst culprits (including ornamental grasses) so consider a lawn-free existence - decking, paving slabs, or gravel can all look great if softened by planting around or dotted within. Daily pollen forecasts will tell you what days to avoid in the garden but pollen counts are usually highest in the evening on a fine sunny day. The best time for low allergen gardening is a spring morning on a cool, dull day. Avoid mowing the grass when it's windy, but if you have to, shut all the windows, wear sunglasses, a face mask and a hat and change your clothes and take a shower to wash all the pollen off when you get indoors.
If symptoms persist, go to your pharmacist. There are over-the-counter potions available which will freshen you up almost immediately. If you're a regular sufferer, get the tonic in advance of high pollen season so it's always on hand.
Finally, remember moulds can also be a trigger for asthma and hay fever so stay away from the compost heap (which is full of fungi), especially when it is being turned.