There are many gardeners and outdoor enthusiasts whose joys of nature can be severely hampered by allergens and hay fever. If you are one of the unfortunate ones, you’ll be all too familiar with the symptoms; itchy eyes, streaming noses, and respiratory problems making you head for the medicine cupboard. But do you really know which plant or tree is the culprit?
Perhaps the first question we should ask is what is hay fever and what causes it? Pollen allergy is the most common form of seasonal respiratory allergic disease in the Mediterranean. You are unlikely to see the pollen in the air as their particles are too fine, but they are easily ingested through our nostrils, so it's hard to gauge how much is being dispersed on any given day. You might notice a dusty sheen on the car or the outdoor terrace blown there by the breeze, but by that time you’ll probably have already started sneezing, so it's difficult to prepare for in advance.
It's these wind pollinators that contain the most allergens and can make some people’s lives quite miserable. Our wonderful Mediterranean climate with its lengthy flowering times, also means that pollination continues through the year. So what can be done?
Apart from taking regular antihistamines or other mainstream medicines perhaps it's best to study what's growing in your garden and see if you can identify – and therefore avoid - the trigger culprits. There are four main families that are responsible for the majority of allergens found in the Mediterranean, so if you suffer from regular hay fever then it's likely you are living with one or more of them. 1. Perennial Grasses 2. Olive 3. Cypress 4. Parietaria Perennial
Plants of the Poaceae family are the main source of grass pollen allergens, due to their worldwide distribution and their significant pollen-producing capability. The most prolific species are Lolium perenne (rye-grass), Poa pratensis (Kentucky bluegrass) and Phleum pratense (Timothy grass or herdgrass), but other species may also be a problem here in Iberia including the Bermuda varieties. If you have a lawn, you need to keep the grass kept short. But if this is your trigger, you might need to get somebody else to do the mowing. Spring is here, and as the grass grows, it produces seed and pollen.
Portugal is home to the olive tree ,but its wind blown pollen is the main cause of allergen-created breathing difficulties as opposed to the general symptoms of runny noses and itchy eyes. From April to June, olives produce an abundance of pollen, so if you are finding you have a congestion-type breathing problem (and you are otherwise generally healthy), it's very likely to are living amongst olive trees. In some extreme cases for those who are very sensitive, a reaction to olive trees can last throughout the year - even after pollination stops. Clipping your trees prior to flowering will help, which means you will lose any fruit, but it might be the best option if it makes your life more bearable.
Cypress trees from are becoming more popular in our landscapes as architectural and ornamental features in the garden. But perhaps yours is not your friend. Cupressus semperviren pollen is as aggressive as most and will cause breathing difficulties and often asthma in many younger children or adults who are susceptible. So proficient are they in producing pollen, that plumes of fine pollen dust is released into the atmosphere each time these trees are pruned or blown in the wind. Acacias and Junipers are also common in causing reactions for many.
The Parietaria family of plants include nettles and herbaceous plants such as mugwort, so don’t be surprised to find yourself sneezing on your allotment. Beets, chard and wild spinach will all have you blowing your nose as they are common wind pollinators, so for hay fever sufferers perhaps the supermarket veg department is best for these items.
And it doesn’t end there. If you have an allergic reaction to the pollens mentioned above, its quite possible that you are also sensitive to the related types of food. For example, if you have a grass pollen allergy, you may also have a reaction when eating wheat, tomato, kiwi fruits, melon, watermelon, peach, cherries or apricots.
People who are allergic to nettle family pollen can react badly to basil, mulberry, cherries and melon. So a bit doom and gloom for the up and coming pollen season, but if you can identify the triggers it's still possible to live alongside these beautiful specimens. Closing windows, washing patios regularly, correct pruning and mowing, and if that isn’t enough, a last resort dose of tablets, should keep that nose dry and allow you to spend time outdoors without too much anguish.