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Allergenic Plants


Nevada's state shrub, the sagebrush, is a likely suspect of allergies.

How many of us immigrants into Southern Nevada arrived and were so relieved to learn that we had no allergies? For myself, coming here was arriving in nirvana, since I’d been plagued with respiratory allergies back in New York.

That blissful situation lasted for a couple of years, but it’s over. Allergies are here. Not as bad as they were back east, but still...

Sneezing, eyes tearing, skin itching, throat swelling – if you’ve experienced any of these, you know how miserable it can be to have allergies. I’m not alone, for sure, but I’ve been meeting more and more people who didn’t have allergies and now are as bad off as the rest of us.

Many of the allergenic plants in this area were imported from other parts of the country or the world. If they weren’t brought in deliberately, then they hitchhiked on something, and landed in this area.

Think about pollen, and how it spreads. It makes sense that any type that gets carried on the wind is more likely to reach our eyes and noses than something that needs a bee or some other pollinator to get from flower to flower. A lot of times those flowers are pretty insignificant. But they’re there.

Many of us know that planting fruiting mulberry or olive trees is a big no-no in Clark County. Their pollen does tend to cause misery to anyone who’s susceptible.  I learned the hard way that ash trees can be a big source of trouble. This is a real pity, because as shade trees go, they’re hard to beat. 

American elm trees were once the street tree of choice all across the East, until a nasty  little beetle carried an even nastier fungus, which ultimately killed most of the elms. Most of the available elms now are Chinese or shagbark elms. And they’re allergenic.

Some people have a terrible time with cottonwoods and Arizona Cyprus

We don’t grow much common Bermuda grass around here anymore, because so many of us couldn’t handle the pollen. Some people can’t deal with Kentucky bluegrass or ryegrass. This leads me to ask the big question: why have grass in the desert? Do you have livestock?

Weeds are weeds for so many reasons. They invade; they crowd out important native species; they appear where they’re least wanted. Some of them make us sick.

I was so appalled to find ragweed here in Southern Nevada. It’s appalling to find it anywhere, but – here? It’s so awful, but it’s not alone. Pigweed’s really common in agricultural areas, but you can find it here, and you’ll sneeze when you do.

Tumbleweed, which is Russian thistle, isn’t a symbol of the old west at all. However – here in the modern west, it’s not only a hazard when you’re driving, it’s highly allergenic! You just can’t have enough fun, I guess.

Nevada’s state shrub is sagebrush. It’s rugged; it’s native; it’s all over the state, and now, allergy specialists have announced that it’s yet another allergenic plant.

So with all this great news, what’s an intrepid desert gardener to do?

First, it’s a good idea to know what you’re likely to be allergic to, especially if you already have allergies. Think about how pollen gets around. I myself am never going to plant anything that’s wind pollinated, if I can help it. Fortunately that’s easy, as long as we don’t kill off all the pollinators.

Then, remember to wash your hands and face whenever you take a break. Allergenic plants can leave their little traces anywhere, like your eyelashes! Some things are a bigger problem in one season than another, and if you know that, you’ll save yourself some agony.

Finally, pay attention to the weather forecast, since that’ll tell you which pollen counts are high. You’re not likely to be allergic to everything. We can be grateful for small things.

For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.