Hayfever Means Spring

Cottonwood flowers_CanonCity-CO_LAH_0788

We’re all tired of being confined at home, and many of us are looking for any excuse to get outside—even though we’re pretty much limited to a walk in our neighborhood or puttering in our yard. But as much as I love to garden, I’m finding myself limiting my time outdoors. There’s pollen out there!

One look out the window and you have to wonder, what is blooming? There are a few small bulbs, and I finally have some daffodils, but for the most part, even the dandelions have yet to bud. Yet, my eyes itch and water, my nose is clogged, and it hurts to take a deep breath (and no, I’m not sick with any virus). Where is all this pollen coming from?

Flowering plants generally fall into two groups—those that rely on other creatures (bees, hummingbirds, moths, etc.) to pollinate them, and those that let the wind do the job. The flowers that depend on pollinators tend to be large, flashy with bright colors and strong scents. We notice them and accuse them of causing our hayfever, but for the most part, they’re innocent. Their pollen is (relatively) large and heavy, and doesn’t go anywhere on its own.

Bee over Dahlia 'Tropic Sun'_HudsonGardens-LittletonCO_LAH_9312f

But the pollen of wind-pollinated plants is another matter. In order to travel long distances, it’s small and lightweight. And since wind doesn’t care where it blows, these plants have to maximize their chances by producing a lot of pollen—billions of grains per plant. We tend to overlook the flowers, as there is no reason for them to be noticeable, either to us or to pollinators. Yet, these are the plants that make us miserable.

Because they don’t need insects, wind-pollinated plants often bloom early, while it’s still winter.  We may think we have a cold, since the idea of flowers in February never occurs to us. If your “cold” comes at the same time every year, perhaps it’s not a cold.

Trees are the primary sources of pollen in late winter and early spring. Most conifers are wind pollinated. Junipers are one of the earliest, followed by pines. When we lived in a ponderosa forest, I remember seeing drifts of yellow pollen on our deck every spring.

Broad-leaved trees also bloom early, often before any leaves appear. Elms and poplars (such as cottonwoods and aspen) are just finishing their run; maples and some oaks are now in full bloom. You have to look closely to see their flowers, but they’re there.

Later in the year, grasses take over, along with ragweed, which it seems everyone is allergic to.

Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Caudatum'_Chinese Pennisetum_DBG_LAH_4179Wind-pollinated flowers have some characteristics in common. I’ve already mentioned their inconspicuous nature. Most lack petals, so that their stamens and stigmas can catch the breezes unhindered. These female parts are large and often feathery so the pollen hits and sticks. The flowers don’t bother to produce nectar, nor do they have a scent. And due to the precarious nature of their being pollinated, they typically have single-seeded fruits—think acorns and maple samara.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid wind-borne pollen. Even if you avoid planting species you’re allergic to, someone else in the area probably will, and the pollen travels for miles. I try to stay inside, where we have an air purifier, and that helps. My husband opted to visit an allergist, and his allergy shots have helped tremendously.

I try to look at it this way: even while winter seems interminable, my runny nose tells me that spring has already begun. Can the pretty flowers be far behind?

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