Are you sneez­ing? Don’t blame those yel­low-flow­er­ing ben­e­fi­cials

Home - Santa Fe Real Estate Guide - - THEMASTERGARDENERS - LAURIE McGRATH

I call it “the yel­low sea­son.” In Cal­i­for­nia, spring­time brought a golden layer of pine pollen that I swept off my wind­shield daily. When I moved to New Mex­ico, I as­so­ci­ated pollen al­ler­gies with the pro­fu­sion of shrubs cov­ered in bright yel­low as fall ap­proached.

I’m not sure why we of­ten as­so­ciate our al­lergy symp­toms with yel­low. In color psy­chol­ogy, yel­low is de­scribed as the bright­est color in the spec­trum and the one most eas­ily dis­cerned by hu­mans. So it ap­pears we arewired to see yel­low­first.

Gold­en­rod is the as­sumed vil­lain for hay-fever mis­ery in the East. But ac­cord­ing to An­drea DeLong-Amaya, di­rec­tor of hor­ti­cul­ture at the Lady Bird John­son Wild­flower Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas Austin, “The real cul­prit is rag­weed.” Rag­weed blooms si­mul­ta­ne­ously, but “peo­ple don’t see those flow­ers, which are green or white, small and not showy,” while the bril­liant yel­low flow­ers of gold­en­rod are highly vis­i­ble.

At this time of year in New Mex­ico, it’s chamisa (Chrysotham­nus nau­seous, also known as rab­bit­brush)that pro­vides so much vivid yel­low in the land­scape. Yet in the daily pollen re­ports of lo­cal news­pa­pers, chamisa (also known as rab­bit­brush, chamiso, or rub­ber rab­bit­brush) is not men­tioned. We get pollen counts for chenopods, part of the ama­ranth plant fam­ily, which in­cludes such weeds as pig­weed and goose­foot; as well as the com­mon food plants spinach and quinoa. Counts are also given for grasses, sage­brush, and rag­weed. But there is no men­tion of chamisa ei­ther by its botan­i­cal name, Eri­camer­ica nau­seosa (for­merly Chrysotham­nus nau­seo­sus) or its plant fam­ily, Aster­aceae.

Ac­cord­ing to the web­site pollen.com, “This genus is not com­monly cited as a source of al­lergy.” They rate the chamisa’s al­ler­genic­ity as “mild.” So are we once again opt­ing to ac­cuse the “yel­low” plant when there are more pro­lific pollen-pro­duc­ers sur­round­ing us?

DeLong-Amaya points out that pollen has to be in­haled to cause al­lergy symp­toms. If a plant de­pends on air­borne pol­li­na­tion, it will pro­duce mas­sive quan­ti­ties of light pollen in or­der to as­sure that some of it gets to the right plant. But the pollen of plants that de­pend on in­sect pol­li­na­tion is heav­ier or stick­ier so that in­sects are bet­ter able to carry it from plant to plant. There­fore, in­sect-pol­li­nated plants don’t need to pro­duce as much pollen in or­der to get it to the right plant. In her ex­am­ple, the ma­ligned gold­en­rod has heavy pollen, while rag­weed has light pollen.

In ad­di­tion to rag­weed pro­duc­ing air­borne pollen in our area, what about those grasses, chenopods, and sage­brush? On the web­site Scienc­ing, Henri Bauholz points out that flow­ers of wind-pol­li­nated plants don’t need to at­tract much at­ten­tion so are of­ten dull or in­con­spic­u­ous. “Wind-pol­li­nated grasses tend to pro­duce large amounts of pollen, which can cause al­lergy prob­lems in peo­ple,” he writes. Rag­weed’s al­ler­genic­ity on pollen.com is rated as “se­vere.” And­while sage­brush and chamisa are in the same fam­ily, of­ten grow­ing side by side, it is the sage­brush that gets a “se­vere” rat­ing for al­ler­gies.

Chamisa is a na­tive plant with tremen­dous value to our na­tive pol­li­na­tors. David Sal­man ofWater­wise Gardening in Santa Fe, claims, “Rab­bit­brush is an in­valu­able source of nec­tar and pollen for feed­ing the bees in au­tumn.” The flower heads are a clus­ter of tubu­lar flow­ers. In a TaosNews ar­ti­cle, Steve Tapia ob­served that the “bright yel­low blos­soms at­tract nu­mer­ous bees, wasps, but­ter­flies and other pol­li­nat­ing in­sects at a time when few other nec­tar and pollen sources are avail­able.” So from now on, when I pon­der the var­i­ous plants sur­round­ing us in the fall, I’ll re­mem­ber that there are many sources of pollen and per­haps chamisa is the least trou­ble­some to hu­mans and one of the most valu­able to our re­gional ecosys­tem.

Laurie McGrath has been a cer­ti­fied Master Gar­dener in Santa Fe County for 18 years and is a found­ing mem­ber of the Santa Fe Na­tive Plant Project (SNaPP), an ad­vanced Master Gar­dener train­ing with the goal of ed­u­cat­ing the pub­lic about the many ben­e­fits of us­ing na­tive plants in the home land­scape.

Painted lady but­ter­fly sip­ping nec­tar from chamisa flow­ers; cour­tesy U.S. Depart­ment of the In­te­rior, Bureau of Land Man­age­ment

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