“they [pollen grains] are tiny – perfect masterpieces of natural architecture and structural engineering – and often breathtakingly beautiful”*
Pollen is amazing stuff, and it’s everywhere in spring and summer months. Its individual grains are infinitely variable and beautiful when you look at them under a microscope, with forms varying from simple footballs to prickly alien spaceships.
However, try telling that to someone who’s who has spent the first sunny day of the year indoors, sneezing and cursing. Add to that the disgusting-sounding fact that pollen is basically plant sperm on a quest for female plant parts to fertilise, and Houston – we have a problem. A big problem – pollen causes a major headache for an estimated 25% of the population who suffer from hay fever.
Which plants make the most pollen?
Surprisingly, it’s not the large, obvious flowers like roses and peonies. Why? Because big bright flowers have evolved to attract insects such as bees, which are brilliantly efficient pollinators, taking pollen from one flower to another and placing it just where it’s needed.
Wind-pollinated plants tend to have less colourful ‘flowers’ in the form of catkins, plumes or cones – specialist structures which have evolved to shed huge quantities of pollen: they need to make a lot more of it as the plant simply throws loads of it into the air, in the hope that some will reach the intended destination. The main groups of wind-pollinated plants are grasses and conifers.
Some plants such as hollies, many palms, ginkgoes and some conifers have male and female flowers on separate plants. Only the males produce pollen, so try a female cultivar.
Low/no pollen plants:
- trees with pretty flowers such as crab apples and magnolias
- tubular flowers such as salvias, red hot pokers and foxgloves
- plants kept as clipped topiary so they don’t flower, such as laurel and privet.
- female cultivars of holly such as ‘Golden King’ (confusing eh?!)
High pollen plants:
- ornamental grasses
- lawns (see below)
- birch, oak and plane trees
- hazel (think of the catkins)
Garden your way to less hay fever
Aside from not choosing plants which shed lots of pollen, there’s more you can do to avoid hay fever. Lawns are a big culprit – even though generally the grass doesn’t always have time to flower and shed pollen between mowings, the very fact of cutting the lawn disturbs dust and pollen, which can trigger a reaction in some sufferers. A gravel garden planted with pretty flowers such as pansies and lavender will be much less allergenic – and less work too.
Time of day can have an effect on pollen levels. Some plants release pollen mainly in the afternoon, while others have morning and/or evening peaks. So it’s worth noting when attacks are worst. As a general rule – if it’s good for pollinating insects, it’s good for hay fever sufferers. Check out the RHS’s Perfect for Pollinators list and grow your way to a sneeze-free, bee-friendly summer garden!
* Pollen – The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers by Rob Kessler & Madeline Harley