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If you are suffering from allergies, tree and plant pollen may be the reason.


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Ketzel Levine on NPR

Some years ago an NPR listener to Ketzel Levine’s great on the air garden show, wrote her a note, asking about allergies and what could she do about them. Ketzel mentioned my book, Allergy-Free Gardening, but implied that all it really covered were the worst plants, the ones to avoid. She also seemed to imply that there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about pollen allergies.

When I read this, I wasn’t too happy about it, to say the least. I could tell that she’d heard about my book, but that she certainly hadn’t actually read the book before she wrote that. I decided to write her an email and take issue with everything in her comments that I felt needed to be addressed.

To my great pleasure, and I admit, my great surprise, she not only published my letter on the NPR website, but she also read it live on the air, in its entirety. I no longer have a copy of that email, but I see that it is still published on NPR’s website, and since I am the one who wrote it, I figured I ought to be able to copy and paste it here on this page for visitors to my own site to read.

By the way, I feel honored to have been interviewed on NPR several times. My entire family has been listening to National Public Radio about as long as I can remember, and all of us hold it in high regard. In particular we held the journalism work of NPR’s senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer to be consistently interesting, and always of the very highest quality. Working with Linda Wertheimer on my first NPR interview was a complete delight…she’s a very nice, sympathetic person, and a terrific interviewer who asks all the best questions. That interview is posted on this site, and please do take a moment and listen to it if you’ve never heard it. 

Likewise, hearing Ketzel Levine read my long email on the air, an email that in effect was calling her to task, that too was, well, mighty nice. You have to admire her for doing it.  I had long enjoyed her sense of humor and her excellent gardening advice, so this just made it better. If you’ve never listened to Ketzel, make sure to do so…..I’m sure you’ll love her.

My email response to Ketzel:


I just happened across a posted reply of yours to someone asking about my book, Allergy-Free Gardening. You wrote "But as you intimated, the landscape at large is so beyond your control, the pollen rain often originating from hundreds of miles away, that even the so-called right plants in a home landscape may not make 'one-hill-of-beans difference.' Unfortunately, in moving to an agricultural area, you've moved into Weed Central"

A few comments if I may:

  1. Allergy and pollen levels are worse in urban areas now than they are in the "country" due to the heavy over-use in landscape horticulture of dioecious wind-pollinated "litter-free" male cultivars.
  2. Contrary to what you may think, in typical urban areas of the U.S. now, the total yearly pollen load most often runs 70-90+ percent from area trees and shrubs, and weeds are not the primary cause of pollen allergy.
  3. The 1972 report on pollen dispersal by the meteorologist, Gilbert Raynor, showed beyond a doubt that by far the greatest amount of pollen falls out and sticks very close to the source, even with that most buoyant of pollen grains, those of Timothy grass, as per his study.

If you were to simply walk on a sidewalk or on asphalt underneath, say an alder tree in bloom in early spring, or perhaps under a birch tree just a bit later in the year, or a large oak a bit after that, and you bothered to look down on the sidewalk under any of those trees, what you would see is that almost all of the pollen falls (gravity) and lands right near the source tree. The pollens in the above examples are bright yellow and really hard to miss.

Now, if you were highly allergic to any of these, and had a bunch of them growing in your own yard, then guess who would get the big, serious exposure?
A few days ago some writer from SmartMoney emailed me and wanted to know if I could back up my claim that while officially 38 percent of Americans now have allergies, that years ago only around 5 percent did.

In a 1959 Encyclopedia Britannica I found this: "Between 2 percent and 5 percent of the general public have allergies."

In a 1986 World Book it said that 15 percent of the public have allergies.

And by 1999 the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology stated that now 38 percent of us have allergies.

Deaths from asthma used to be rare too, but this year they expect some 7,000+ to die suddenly from asthma, many of them small children.

I had a case once where a young girl had been sick for months every single year in spring. She was tested and found not allergic to any of the allergens commonly tested for, but year after year she was extremely sick at the same time of year. I did an inspection of her family's landscape and found a large male Podocarpus shrub growing right next to her bedroom window. It was literally "smoking" with pollen. This pollen is not especially low in specific gravity and is not often found in aero-samples, nor is it ever skin -tested for but it is a common landscape shrub here in California and it normally is sold as a litter-free "fruitless" cutting-grown male.

On my advice, they cut down this shrub and replaced it with a Feijoa (Pineapple Guava). The girl immediately got better and the spring problem never returned. Podocarpus, a Yew (Taxus) relative, is, like the Yew, quite poisonous and this pollen which must have been going right through her window screen, it was also poisonous.

I could give you many examples like this of the extreme importance of locality with pollen-allergy.

Tom Ogren

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