There are around 12 million hay fever sufferers in the UK, approximately 20% of the population. And there are around 25 million amateur gardeners, approximately 40% of the population – and that is not counting those who garden for a living. It is therefore reasonable to assume that there must be an absolute minimum of 5 million gardeners (ie 20% of all gardeners) who suffer from hay fever….
Everyone, whether they garden or not, knows that certain plants (like pollen-heavy trees or grasses) give them hay fever. So by definition, certain other plants must be better for their hay fever. Given that hay fever is such a miserable and debilitating condition, why don’t gardeners and town planners design gardens and open spaces planted with trees, bushes and flowers that do not cause hay fever?…..
This regular rant has resurfaced because, of course, it is Chelsea Flower Show this week (‘town square garden’ pictured above). And, yet again, there is absolutely nothing anywhere in all the vastness of the Royal Hospital Gardens about hay fever or allergy. Plenty about saving the world, saving water, helping Alzheimer’s patients, and the partially sighted – all splendidly worthy causes. But why are none of them helping the snivelling millions whose eyes stream and whose noses are blocked every year by the pollen from the trees, and grasses and weeds? Especially when the answer lies in their own speciality – plants?
Several years ago I got so frustrated by this situation that, after the show was over, I contacted every show garden designer, large and small, to ask them whether they would consider designing a low allergen garden. Many ignored me but some responded quite positively. Several of them were hay fever sufferers themselves and always had a miserable time at Chelsea because of the numbers of plane trees shedding their pollen over the Royal Hospital Gardens. But in the end it came down to money and none thought they could raise the prodigious amount that it costs to build one of those show gardens (£100,000s) for a low allergen garden. Why? Because so few people have studied the subject and therefore understand that a low allergen garden can be just as delightful and appealing as one that is laden with pollen – it will just be different.
The American gardener Tom Ogren is a world expert on low allergen gardening. He has invented a plant allergen scale, OPALS (which made its first appearance in Wikipiedia about a month ago) and has written extensively about low allergen plants both in domestic and city planning environments. His basic tenet is very simple. Male plants are anxious to spread their seed as widely and profusely as they can so produce enormous quantities of pollen most of which is dispersed for them by the winds – and gets up human noses in the process. Female plants wish to attract seeds so they suck the pollen in thus cleaning the atmosphere – and going nowhere near human noses. This is particularly relevant in a city planning context as female plants/trees also tend to produce fruits which get shed all over the pavement and have to be cleaned up; male plants/trees do not. So it is pollen-shedding male trees that get planted.
If you wish to investigate further (and if you or any member of your family suffers from hay fever I really suggest that you do), checkout Tom’s website, read one of his books (Allergen Free Gardening or Safe Sex in the Garden – both available from the site or on Amazon) or read the articles, many by Tom, on the gardening section of the FoodsMatter site.
Meanwhile, back to Chelsea… Having done my usual round of the show gardens, cottage gardens and the big marquee without finding any mention of hay fever or inhaled allergens, I fetched up at the Discovery Corner in the Great Pavilion. Surely, here, I thought…. But no – after looking at really good exhibits on transforming waste land into productive land (Groundwork), sleeping ancient woodlands (The Woodland Trust), working allotments and the music of plants I ended up at the Rothamsted Research stand which was telling you how to control pests by using the right plants.
‘What about inhaled allergens and hay fever’, I asked, ‘ever done any work on them?’
‘Err, no’, the friendly young man replied, ‘although my four year old son does suffer badly from hay fever.’
Me: ‘Ever thought about doing some work on low allergen plants?’
Him: ‘Didn’t know there were such things…’
A brief discussion ensued, business cards and website addresses were exchanged and hopefully a small seed might have been sown. Next year a Rothamsted exhibit on how to grow an allergen-free oil-seed rape?…. Now how good would that be?…
PostScript. For those of you just interested in the flowers, this was ‘blue’ year…. Yes, the show gardens were very beautiful and all that but, they were all very blue and, to be honest, very similar. And if one more designer tells me that his/her garden will allow me to ‘reflect, contemplate and relax’ I shall be very tempted to throw a trowel into the middle of their ‘smooth reflective pool of water’…..
But show gardens aside, the flowers in the Great Pavilion were, as always, totally spectacular. Not that they will ever look like that in your garden, but it is always nice for a cat to be able to look at a king!
Chelsea Flower Show – Blue Garden Number 1.
Chelsea Flower Show – Blue Garden Number 2.
Chelsea Flower Show – Blue Garden Number 3.
Chelsea Flower Show – Blue Garden Number 4 – with potter’s shed….