The following is a letter I sent to the editor of the Los Angles Times. They did not print the letter (I know, it was way too long for their letters, but I sent it anyhow, wanting to put it on their radar:
The White House Should Have an Allergy-Free Landscape
The oldest Obama daughter, Malia, age 10, has allergies, as we all now know, ever since all the talk about them getting a dog, and needing an allergy-free dog.
What the Obama's may not understand though, is that any dog that runs around in a yard with allergenic plants, can and will pick up large amounts of allergenic pollen on its hair. When the dog comes inside and the kids play with it, they then will get some of this same allergenic pollen.
This reminds me of something a woman told me after a talk I'd given. I was in southern California giving talks about allergy-free gardening at a big home and garden show at the Anaheim Convention Center. In one of my talks I mentioned bottlebrush, a large shrub or small, bushy tree with brush-like red flowers. Many years ago when I first started "sniff testing" people with different kinds of flowers, bottlebrush was THE one flower that really opened my eyes. Almost half of the people who took a direct sniff of bottlebrush flowers almost immediately started sneezing. They sneezed hard and they sneezed for a long time. Some sneezed almost continually for close to a week after one good direct sniff of bottlebrush.
Later when I shook some bottlebrush flowers onto a glass slide, and got a close-up look at the tiny pollen grains, I suddenly had a good idea why they were so potent. One small shake of the flower produced thousands of pollen grains on the slide. Each grain was very small, and shaped like a triangle. Each tip of each triangle point was extremely sharp, pointed like a microscopic needle.
Okay, back to the dog: After I'd given my talk about plants and allergies, I was selling and signing books. A woman came up with a book for me to sign and while I was signing it she said, "What you said about the bottlebrush almost made me cry."
"How is that?" I asked her.
"I'm too embarrassed to tell you," she said.
But I talked her into it finally, and this is what she told me: "We used to have this big dog, a golden lab. He was the best dog we ever had, and I loved him, my husband loved him, and so did our kids. But he would come into the house when we were watching TV, and he'd sneeze, and then would shake himself, and we'd all start sneezing. It got worse and worse."
"So," I asked her, "what did you do?"
"Finally," she said, "my husband and I talked about it and we decided he had to go."
I didn't ask her just exactly what that meant...didn't want to know.
"And anyhow," she continued, "listening to you talking today, about the bottlebrush, I suddenly realized that in our backyard, off in the far corner of the yard, there is a large bottlebrush. It has branches that go right down to the ground and it is blooming most of the year. Our backyard is hot and sunny and the dog would go and sit under that bottlebrush to get out of the sun. I realized as you were speaking that he must have got that pollen all over him, and that's what made him, and us, sneeze so much."
They had gotten rid of their favorite dog, when instead they could have gotten rid of that bottlebrush tree. It seemed a real pity to me.
Back to the White House and the First Dog, "Bo."
Bo, a Portuguese water dog, is indeed a type of dog that few people have allergies to. Nonetheless, if good old Bo runs around the White House landscape and gets into allergenic plants, he too will bring them inside with him...stuck to his hair.
The logical solution is to allergy-free the White House landscape.
I am familiar with the plants used around the White House, although I have never yet been able to survey them all, plant by plant. There are a few highly allergenic trees in the landscape, as well as some male yews and some other male shrubs, too. Were I able to go there and ID the worst plants, they could be easily replaced with pollen-free selections, resulting in a landscape that would be quite low-allergy potential. With this in mind I emailed President Obama, and got no response. I emailed Michelle Obama, and got no response. I even sent a letter, snail mail about this to the Sidwell Friends School that the Obama daughters attend. This well-respected Quaker private school is known to have some newer buildings that have received the highest "green construction" awards possible. So far, I have gotten no response from the headmaster of the school.
And so, to whomever it is who reads the mail and email of these famous, powerful people, I sure do hope you also read the LA Times.... because the White House does indeed deserve an allergy-free gardening makeover.
Thomas Leo Ogren
Author of Allergy-Free Gardening, from Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA
Among my credits, I landscaped the American Lung Association headquarters in Richmond, VA with a pollen-free landscape. The USDA uses my plant allergy scale, as do numerous other organizations. I helped draft the current State of California 7 Year Asthma Initiative, which now has an allergy-free gardening component for the first time.