Allergies & asthma in the backyard
Most of us enjoy getting outside in the garden during spring. But for people with hay fever and asthma, the extra pollen in air can trigger symptoms and flare-ups.
We recently sat down with Dr. Ed Newbigin to discuss all things gardening and pollen. Dr. Newbigin is an Associate Professor in the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne. We covered some of the key topics below:
- Tips for avoiding plants that contribute to allergies, hay fever and asthma
- General rules for choosing low-allergy plants
- The worst pollen producing trees and plants in Australian backyards
- Resources for learning more about pollen in your local area
Wind-Pollination: Large pollen spreaders in our backyards
Wind-pollinated plants – grasses, weeds and certain trees – are often the biggest culprits when it comes to allergies and asthma in the garden. They use wind to carry pollen from plant to plant – and many of them flower during spring. This type of pollen is light and can travel long distances depending on the wind conditions and other factors.
“Plants that have non-obvious flowers, called cryptic flowers, they are (typically) the ones to avoid. Birch is a good example. You may not notice the flowers at the time, but they release a lot of pollen into the air when they are flowering,” says Dr. Newbigin.
This makes wind-pollinated plants ones to watch out for when looking to reduce pollen in your backyard.
Unfortunately, you can’t control what pollen gets blown into your yard, so no matter where you live or what’s in your backyard, it’s important to keep up with your preventative medications.
For more tips about managing your asthma and hay fever over spring, download our Spring Asthma Pack.
How can I choose better plants for my garden?
Dr. Newbigin recommends selecting plants based on their pollen profiles. For example, some species of grass are much better for people with allergies than others. You can ask your local nursery about the best low-pollen alternatives.
In some cases, you might choose to move or completely remove wind-pollinated plants. This can be particularly beneficial if they are close to your home, like near a bedroom window.
Luckily, many of our favourite flowers are not wind pollinated. Dr. Newbigin explains that plants with attractive flowers such as roses and wattle, are generally insect pollinated. This type of pollen is ‘sticky’ and doesn’t travel in the wind. It is less likely to be an issue for people with asthma or allergies.
“Things that have nice, showy flowers, they are going to be less of a problem, because that pollen is being carried from plant to plant by pollinators and birds and bees and so on. The show is all about attracting the pollinator,” Dr. Newbigin explains.
There are also sterile flower plant varieties available, and many plants that have low or no pollen.
Which plants cause the most allergy issues?
Grass is the obvious one, and if you are someone that doesn’t cut their lawn regularly, that can be a problem. But often it’s going to be the (surrounding) trees, especially the deciduous ones,” says Dr Newbigin.
Wind-pollinated plants come in many different shapes and sizes. Pasture grasses, such as perennial ryegrass, are large contributors to Melbourne’s local pollen. Ryegrass is found in many places across Australia and is often reported in pollen counts and local allergy advice. Some of the other common wind-pollinated plants include –
- Bahia and canary grass
- Some types of daisy
- Asthma weed (Pellitory)
You should also watch out for deciduous trees. Deciduous trees lose their leaves in winter. They start to shoot pollen-laden flowers after winter, often before they have leaves on them again. Late winter and early spring are typically when their pollen production peaks. Deciduous trees include –
- London Plane trees
- Birch trees
- Ash trees
- Elm tree
Other pollen producing trees to look out for include –
- Cedar trees
- Olive trees
- Cypress pine
Pollen counts and understanding your risk
At Melbourne Pollen, Dr. Newbigin provides grass and other pollen forecasting information that helps people with asthma and allergies navigate their pollen risk. This information is available Australia wide through different services, and you can read more here.
Various parts of Australia have different pollen seasons and getting advice for your local area is important, as the species of grasses and trees in your area will differ. Local pollen count information is available on our Pollen Monitoring page.