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Let me tell you about the Birds and The Bees
by Teresa Watkins
by Teresa Watkins

Teresa Watkins, University of Florida's Florida Yards & Neighborhoods multi-county program coordinator is a recognized leader on xeriscape principles and creating 'environmentally-friendly' landscapes.

An award-winning radio and TV host of a variety of gardening shows in Central Florida, Teresa recently designed the landscaping of the 'first energy and environmentally efficient' home in the state of Florida to be certified as a 'green home' by the Florida Green Building Coalition and Florida Solar Energy Center. Currently, she hosts a weekly radio show, 'In My Backyard' on WLBE 790 AM, sponsored by the Lake County Water Authority, that features environmental issues and landscaping advice on for backyards.

When not digging in someone else's backyard, you can find Teresa digging in her own garden, looking for slugs and lubber grasshoppers --- creatures, that she adamantly swears, do not have souls --- aided in that effort by Sheila, her loyal Scottish terrier and legendary lubber killer.

July 1, 2007

Let me tell you 'bout the birds and the bees
And the flowers and the trees,
The moon up above,
And the thing called love.

Dean Martin’s cuddle song from the 1960’s makes the birds, bees, flowers and trees sound romantic, but put them all together in the springtime and you have a recipe not for romance, but for headaches, hay fever, and Kleenex™. Suffering from allergies is especially hard on devoted gardeners no matter where you live in Florida. Because of the cross breezes and spring winds, the daily pollen count almost always registers in the uncomfortable range.

We love our gardens and landscaping but the American College of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology has seen an allergy epidemic increase as much as 40 percent in our population over the last 50 years. That’s nothing to sneeze at! Even if you go the extra mile in taking special efforts to have a landscape that will not acerbate stressful allergies, somewhere down the road, somebody who doesn’t know any better is innocently planting pollen-laden shrubs and trees.

Thomas Leo Ogren, author of Allergy-Free Gardening and Safe Sex in the Garden – and Other Propositions For An Allergy-Free World, has created the first plant allergen scale called OPALS, an acronym meaning Ogren Plant Allergy Scale. The scale is invaluable to gardeners as are his books, which provide in-depth lists of flowers, shrubs, grasses, trees and insightful tips in designing a healthier landscape. The OPALS ranks the plants in our landscapes nationwide from 1 (least allergic like the New Wave Petunias) to 10 (worst offenders).

In my landscaping workshops and in my Gardening with Soul© articles, I advocate finding out about the plants you would like to use in your landscape before you buy them. If you or someone in your family is prone to allergies, checking out the OPALS list before you make any purchases makes good sense. Why go through the days (or nights) feeling miserable when the culprit is right outside your door?

One of the most popular misconceptions regarding spring pollen is that in the springtime with all the flowers bursting into bloom, it is the flowers that are culprits. In actuality, it’s the male pollen that is spread from flower to flower, shrub to shrub, and tree to tree by Mother Nature’s winds.
So when people think they are installing the right plants by not planting female or berry-producing plants, but are not able to identify the sex of plants, they are worsening their health issues by misunderstanding the plants’ role in pollination. Hey, but don’t fret over that — it’s hard for horticulturists to ‘sex’ plants. It’s important to remember that just because a shrub or tree has fruit, that doesn’t make it a female. It could be ‘monoecious’ which means being both male and female, or ‘self-pollinating’ which indicates it will not need a companion plant to produce fruit. You can be assured though that if it has fruit it is not a male plant, since males do not have fruit, seeds, or seedpods. Having male plants in your landscape is a guarantee that your allergies will intensify.

So what kind of trees and shrubs should you look for in deciding on allergy-free landscape? Here are some easy guidelines to follow if you would like a healthier garden experience. Find plants that are:

  • Perfect-flowered, this means they don’t have to distribute their pollen far distances. Good examples would be roses and night-blooming jasmine.

  • Large and brightly colored petals, have fragrance, have nectar, since these factors will attract insect pollinators, like hibiscus, snapdragons, alyssum.

  • Flowers that are pink, red, orange or blue. This indicates that they rely more on insects than the wind for pollination.

  • Short period of blooming or blooms once a year and only blooms on old wood

  • Tubular or trumpet-shaped flowers since Mother Nature realizes they aren’t easily pollinated by the wind.

Stay away from plants that:

  • Cause skin irritations or rashes (like poinsettias)

  • Blooms throughout the year or have a long blooming period (like bottlebrushes)

  • Blooms on new wood,

  • Light yellow, off-white, or greenish flowers, which are unattractive to insects,

  • Flowers that don’t have sepals which also discourages insects.

  • Sticky flowers, like the gingko tree, which is pollinated by the wind.

  • Flowers and shrubs that have unpleasant scents.

Good gardening practices include mowing your grass (and weeds) before it flowers and goes to seed, not going outside on windy days, and choose your mulches carefully since the organic mulches can produce mold as it decomposes.

Below are some of the worst allergy inducing flowers, grass, shrubs and trees in Central Florida and you may notice that some species are recommended for water conservation landscapes, so make decisions judiciously.

  • Arizona Cypress

  • Bald Cypress

  • Chinese Elm

  • Elm

  • Eucalyptus

  • Fringe Tree

  • Mango

  • Mulberry

  • Oaks

  • Osage Orange

  • Pecan

  • Privet

  • Sumac

  • Sycamore

  • Willow

  • Artemesia (Dusty Millers)

  • Bahia grass

  • Bermuda grass

  • Hollies

  • Privet

  • Palm trees (buy only females)

  • Junipers (buy only females)

  • Buttercups

  • Castor Bean

  • Centipede grass

  • Fountain grass

  • Goldenrod

  • Sedges

  • Gold Dust Plants, Aucuba japonica (buy only females)


  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row