For most of us, puttering in the garden is therapeutic. But for allergy sufferers, it can be agony. Airborne pollens and spores can produce allergic reactions ranging from mildly irritating to life-threatening. Despite the hazards, many of the allergy-prone love to garden. Antihistamines get some people through. Others just suffer. Some retreat inside for the duration. But for those seeking an alternative to pharmaceuticals, stoicism or confinement, there is low- allergen gardening.
Lucy Huntington, author of "Creating a Low-Allergen Garden" (Laurel Glen Publishing, 1998, $19.95), designed her first low-allergen garden in 1992 at the request of the National Asthma Council in Britain. It was displayed at the Chelsea Flower Show, the largest flower show in England.
The garden drew a lot of interest from sufferers of asthma, hay fever and allergies. Interest spread all the way to the Asthma Foundation of New South Wales in Australia. "It led to the setting up of an allergen trail within the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, and the proposal to use low-allergen plants around the village being built for the Olympic Games in 2000," Huntington writes.
Since Olympic athletes are severely restricted in their use of drugs, those suffering from asthma and hay fever compete at a distinct disadvantage during pollen season. Low-allergen plantings may help level the playing field.
What's low allergen?
A low-allergen garden is made up of only plants that produce no allergic reactions in the gardener. In her book, Huntington lists both plants to use as well as those to avoid but also acknowledges that reactions to specific plants vary from person to person.
Some people may disagree with the inclusion of some plants in the "safe" category, she writes, while others may have no problem with plants in the "dangerous" group.
Because a low-allergen garden must be individually tailored, it's important to know your own allergy profile. For example, I must wear long sleeves and use care when weeding around the laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), since its touch gives me a burning rash. The first time it happened, I thought I'd been stung by a bee. In any case, be sure that what you think causes your reaction is actually the bad guy.
"Many people believe they're allergic to fall-blooming goldenrod," says Jean Worthley, naturalist and former host of MPT's "Hodge Podge Lodge," "while the culprit is actually ragweed." Ragweed, which blooms at the same time as goldenrod, spews windborne pollen that is estimated to be responsible for nearly 90 percent of pollen-induced allergies in the United States.
"The later blooming fall grasses are usually not a problem, either," Worthley continues. "For example, switch grass, (Panicum virgatum) is usually not a problem, and it's a nice native grass."
Fragrance can also be a trigger, even though the plant is pollinated by insects or small animals. For example, honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), which is pollinated by bees, can cause reactions, as can night-scented stock (Matthiola longipetala bicornis) and evening primrose (Oenothera), which are pollinated by moths. Huntington's book offers some nonallergenic alternatives in her list of plants to avoid.
What to plant
Despite the need to tailor plantings to the individual gardener's reaction profile, all low-allergen gardens have certain things in common.
First, all rely on plants that are pollinated by bees, bugs, birds or bats, rather than wind. Many culinary herbs, most of which are free of molds and fungal diseases that can also act as reaction triggers, fall into this category. Thymes, sages, bay, oregano, marjoram, tarragon and the entire mint family, which includes not only ginger mint, spearmint, blue balsa, chocolate, apple, and orange mint (and more) but lemon balm -- generally, if it has a square stem, it's a mint -- are nonallergens. (Bear in mind that mints can be invasive, so consider planting them in pots, either sunk into beds or sitting on top as a pretty focal point.). In "Herb Garden Design" (MacMillan, 1995, $25) Ethne Clark offers a beautiful low-allergen culinary herb garden that includes the dark richness of purple sage contrasted against the tiny gray-green leaves of 'Silver Posie' thyme, and the large, forest green of bay (Laurus nobilis), which is set off by yellow-edged lemon thyme and blotches of ginger mint.
A second common component of low-allergen gardens is to limit -- or eliminate altogether -- lawn. In its place, low-allergen gardens favor stone, brick or other nongrass pathways.
Dust is another trigger, but a ground carpet of foliage minimizes it. To limit fungal spores, make sure plants enjoy good air circulation, are kept well-fed and are pruned of dead or dying foliage.
Some low-allergen plants
Black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata)
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
Canterbury bells (Cobaea)
Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)
Jacob's ladder (Polemonium caeruleum)
Forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris)
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena)
Annual Phlox (Phlox drummondii)
Siberian iris (Iris sibirica)
Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)
Plants to avoid
Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana)
Blue fescue grass (Festuca glauca)
African daisy (Arctotis x hybrida)
Carnations, pinks (Dianthus)
Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)
Dusty miller (Senecio cineraria)
English daisy (Bellis perennis)
French marigold (Tagetes)
Geranium (Pelargonium hybrids)
Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)
Lantana (Lantana camara)
Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum)
Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)
Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)