Planning A Low Pollen Garden

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When The Garden Makes You Weep (Or Sneeze)

After seemingly endless rain, warmer, brighter days feel especially welcome. Our flowers seem to feel the same way, for blossoms on practically everything are bigger and more abundant than ever this year. However, lots of flowers also means lots of pollen, which spells acute discomfort for many people and even some pets. As pollen fills the air and dusts our cars and garden furniture and even us, we may be tempted to rip out the borders and turn them all to lawn. Well, except perhaps those of us who are allergic to grasses. (!) Fortunately there are more rewarding alternatives, since living without gardens hardly bears consideration.

Lowering the local pollen count begins with research. First of all, it helps to know your triggers. Pollen count websites usually list the major offenders at any given time, and sometimes we can simple look around and see which plants are wafting masses of pollen our way. Sadly, some of the worst offenders are mature trees, including willows, alders, cedars, firs, and so forth. Few of us can or would even think about removing all pollen shedding trees, but it’s worth taking time to explore low pollen alternatives to popular garden plants. So far, the best all-purpose resource I’ve found is Thomas Leo Ogren’s Allergy-Free Gardening, which offers both plant lists and strategies for pollen avoidance. Like most things, it comes with a caveat; allergic responses are idiosyncratic, making these and all such lists suggestions rather than fool-proof rules.

It’s A Guy Thing

Since heavy pollen shedders are usually male, we can eliminate probably problematic plants by replacing male clones of garden shrubs. If we’re creating or renovating a garden, it’s also wise to look for female versions of small trees (see more below). We can also select for low pollen production by choosing shrubs and perennials with large, showy, scentless or lightly scented blossoms. Such flowers are usually female and/or pollinated by insects and other critters rather than wind.

Wind-pollinated flowers are prime candidates for allergy triggers, since their light-weight pollen travels companionably to find us wherever we are. Flowers with wind borne pollen tend to be small and less vivid, so showboat flowers are better bets for pollen avoiders. So are bird-friendly plants, which are generally pollinated by nectar-seeking birds. Sterile hybrids of any kind don’t produce pollen at all, making them top picks for especially sensitive sufferers.

Low Pollen Perennials

If you aren’t sure what’s giving you grief, this list may help you figure out which plants are least likely to be the offenders. As always, some of us have specific responses to plants that don’t bother others, but these make better replacement choices for bad boy pollen producers.

Acanthus (bear’s breeches), Achillea (yarrow), Agastache (anise hyssop), Alchemilla (lady’s mantle), Anemone (windflower), Aquilegia (columbine), Astrantia (masterwort), Cynara (cardoon), Erysimum (wallflower), Eupatorium (jo pie weed), Gaura (wandflower), Geranium, Heuchera (coral bells), Hosta, Kniphophia (poker plant), Lavatera (tree mallow), Lythrum (loosestrife), Nepeta (catmint), Oenothera (evening primrose), Penstemon (beardtongue), Perovskia (Russian sage), Phlomis (Jerusalem sage), Phormium (New Zealand flax), Phygelius (cape fuchsia), Potentilla (cinquefoil), Rheum (rhubarb), Salvia (sage), Sedum (stonecrop), Sisyrinchium (blue-eyed grass), Verbena (vervain), Veronica (speedwell), Yucca (Spanish bayonet).

Low Pollen Annuals

Annuals are often bred for dazzle and many produce little or no pollen. Among the most reliable are: Calendula (pot marigold), Clarkia (winecup), Cosmos, Eschscholzia (California poppy), Godetia (satin flower), Nigella (love-in-a-mist), Lunaria (silver dollar plant), Meconopsis (Welsh poppy), Petunia, Tagetes (marigold), Verbena (vervain), Viola (pansy), Zinnia.
Low Pollen Edibles

Most root vegetables are harvested before they flower, and crucifers (broccoli, cabbage, kale, etc.) and alliums (chives, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots) are seldom troublesome.  Some herbs shed lots of pollen (chamomile, artemisias), others do not. Many pollen-sensitive folks can enjoy growing basil, chives, dill, mint, thyme, lavender, fennel, parsley and rosemary without pollen issues. (Many people are sensitive to lavender, but sensitivity to fragrant plants is not usually pollen related.)

Better Bet Grasses

As for grasses, some (like turf grasses) are major offenders in the pollen-shedding category while others produce modest amounts of pollen. Turf grass sensitivities can usually be reduced by regular mowing, but weed and ornamental grasses are another story. Here again, some are major pollen producers (Johnson grass, orchard grass, Timothy grass), while others are generally far less problematic. Here’s a list of beautiful garden grasses that are less likely to trigger allergies:

Anemanthele lessoniana (pheasant tail grass), Arrhenatherum elatius (oatgrass), Bamboo, Briza (rattlesnake grass), Carex (sedge grass), Elymus (lime grass), Nassella tenuissima (Mexican feather grass), Panicum (panic grass).

Low Pollen Shrubs

Shrubs are of course a key element in garden design and as such, can scarcely be left out of the picture. Clipping shrubs and shearing hedges before they bloom are good ways to eliminate allergic reactions to pollen. However, it’s far simpler to replace heavy pollen producers with less stressful plants. For instance, if you love willows (a notoriously heavy pollen producing clan), plant a corkscrew willow, or the weeping form called Weeping Sally, both of which are females. If you hope to avoid excessive pollen exposure from all your shrubs, consider planting some or all of these handsome shrubs:

Aronia (chokeberry), Berberis (barberry), Callicarpa (beautyberry),
Ceanothus (California lilac), Chaenomeles (quince), Cornus (twiggy dogwood), Escallonia, Fuchsia, Holodiscus (ocean spray), Kolkwitzia (beautybush), Lonicera (shrubby honeysuckle), Nandina  (false bamboo), Oemleria (Indian plum), Philadelphus (mock orange), Physocarpus (ninebark), Potentilla (cinquefoil), Rosa (rose), Rosemarinus (rosemary), Santolina (cotton lavender), Spirea, Symphoricarpos (snowberry), Vaccinium (blueberry, huckleberry), Viburnum (guelder rose).

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2 Responses to Planning A Low Pollen Garden

  1. Don Tyzack says:

    We have an enormous bush of Lavender. It is covered in bees of several kinds including bumbles.
    However not one has any pollen sacs. They only seem to be interested in the Nectar.
    Any comments on the apparent lack of pollen?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Don,
      Lavender, like most insect-pollinated herbs, offers plenty of nectar but is not especially rich in pollen. Don’t worry, bees are still getting what they came for; lavender is a top favorite for many pollinators, including many kinds of bees. I’ve been noticing several different kinds of bumbles on the lavender in recent years, coming in waves, first one kind, then a week or two later, here comes a different type. Fun to watch!

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