May 02, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

Every good thing seems to have a flaw. Roses have thorns, chocolate has calories and spring, well, spring has pollen.

And as if hayfever-causing pollen isn't enough trouble, simply smelling some herbs causes asthma. In her delightful book, The Fragrant Garden," Louise Beebe Wilder dedicates one whole chapter to "Plants of Evil Odor." Plants that reek are interesting. But she also might have included a chapter describing "Plants of Evil Intent" - flora that cause sneezes, wheezes and rashes.

Case in point. For years I believed that I was (except for poison ivy) immune to the distress plants could cause. Then I visited a curandera - a woman who practices Hispanic folk medicine based on herbs and spirituality - in Las Truchas, N.M. I was after a story for my newsletter. But after five minutes in her drying room, where many varieties of Artemisia were laid out on bedsprings covered with sheets, I couldn't catch my breath. Asthma had struck. I had been sensitized to artemisias, one of the backbones of Southwestern herbal medicine.


My susceptibility has continued to this day. Wave a piece of mugwort under my nose and I feel like an elephant is sitting on my chest.

When I found a Web site dedicated to "Allergy-Free Gardening," compiled by Thomas Lee Ogren, I was fascinated. For 20 years, he has been researching plants that cause distress.

An early discovery pointed out the fact that among plants that have male or female versions, it is the male that causes the allergic reaction because male plants produce pollen. Nursery owners, wanting to spare their customers from trees that created a mess by dropping their fruit, seeds, and pods on the ground, chose to sell mostly male trees.

Consequently, over the years, we have planted our landscapes with an inordinate number of male trees that shower their troublesome pollen over us each spring. Ogren calls the average landscape "explosively allergenic."

Moving on from this finding, he explored other plants that make life miserable for many people. He developed OPALS (Ogren Plant ALlergy Score), a rating system to predict allergic reactions. It rates plants from 1 to 10, with 1 being the least troubling, 10 the most.

An exploration of the OPALS Web site makes fascinating reading, and I only got through the As. It was no surprise to find that the Artemisias, that caused me such distress in New Mexico (and thereafter,) rated a nasty 9. The herb garden often harbors a selection of artemisias - sweet Annie, mugwort, wormwood and a laundry list of others. If ragweeds - another family - cause you problems, steer clear of the artemisia tribe.

Some of our most useful garden mainstays like yarrow (Achillea, 7), amaranth (Amaranthus, 8), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis, 10), agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria, 10) and goat's beard (Aruncus Sylvester, 9) are best left alone. Alder (10) and almond (the nut-bearing variety, rating a 9) trees can also be troublesome as are the majority of maples. Acer rubrum, "Davey Red," is one of the exceptions.

So what can you plant if allergies make your life a misery? The sunny garden would be showy with a backdrop of hollyhocks (Alcea, 2) and snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus, 1), with rock cress (Arabis, 1) and thrift (Armeria, 1) planted toward the front. A border of wild ginger (Asarum, 1) mixed with an assortment of ornamental onions (Allium, 2) and windflowers (Anemone, 3) would also make a lovely picture.

If you have a shady garden you might choose columbine (Aquilegia, 1) and sweet woodruff (Galium odorata, 1), for early bloom and bear's breech (Acanthus mollis, 1) for its summer green foliage.

Remember, pollen is lowest early in the morning, so be an early bird when gardening. Then, when you come in, shower and wash your clothes.

If you think you are allergic to your garden, make some informed choices and you'll be home free. Remember, these are only the plants whose botanical names start with A. There are 25 more letters to explore.

If you want to find out more about sneeze-free plants go to on the Web. Then click on OPALS on the side bar.


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