Do you love your garden but find yourself inside looking out at it, rather than spending time in it, thanks to allergies or asthma? The secret to enjoying being in your garden is to find plants that give you the look you want and that are also far less likely to cause problems for you.
Not everyone is allergic to the same thing, and allergic reactions can range from the symptoms of hay fever (Allergic rhinitis) to rashes, hives and blisters (contact dermatitis). Some popular annuals, perennials and shrubs are more likely to trigger allergic reactions than other plants. Below, we call out those plants and offer ideas for replacing them.
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Look at a garden in full bloom, especially in spring and summer, and you might immediately think that all those flowers must mean an allergy nightmare. For most allergy sufferers, though, the flowers aren’t really the problem. Some of the most gaudy plants are the least likely to cause problems because their color is designed to attract insects, which then carry the pollen from plant to plant.
It’s often the less showy plants you need to watch out for. They’re more likely to rely on the wind to do their pollination, and pollen carried by wind is more likely to affect humans (and pets).
This approach isn’t foolproof, of course. Some familiar plants with favorite flowers are some of the worst offenders. Other plants, such as goldenrod, may be thought to be a problem but are actually a good choice.
Tip: Opt for female plants. Also, look for sterile or hypoallergenic hybrids.
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Love-lies-bleeding is known for its drooping red flower clusters that grace gardens in fall and also stun in flower arrangements. The pollen from those flowers, though, can be a major irritant for hay fever sufferers. (Amaranthus beans can also cause allergy problems.)
Alternative: If you’re looking for a replacement flower, consider the chenille plant (Acalypha hispida). Its long, bright crimson flower clusters are equally dramatic. It’s hardy to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 1.1 degrees Celsius (USDA zones 10 to 12), but in these climates, it can reach 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide when planted in the ground; it will be smaller in a container. A chenille plant wants full sun or partial shade and regular water.
In colder climates, grow chenille plant in a container and bring it in during the winter — it’s a favorite houseplant. It’s also a good choice for a greenhouse.
2. Castor Bean
The fast-growing castor bean has become a popular choice as a statement plant or an anchor in a tropical-inspired garden. It grows big, it grows quickly, and it can be treated as an annual.
Unfortunately, all parts of the plant are toxic. The pollen can cause an allergic reaction, as can contact with the sap. It’s also very invasive, another reason to keep it out of your garden.
Alternative: If you want something that stands out, with the added advantage of plenty of flowers, think about growing hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) instead. It can reach heights of 8 to 15 feet and spreads 5 to 8 feet wide. You can also find dwarf varieties now. Flowers may last only a day, but it’s a prolific bloomer, and its flowers attract birds and butterflies.
It’s hardy to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 6.7 degrees Celsius (zones 9 to 11); in colder climates, treat it as an annual or bring it indoors in winter. Provide full sun and regular water throughout the growing season. Pinch out the old wood in spring. Keep an eye out for aphids.
Who would think that an herb celebrated as a calming influence could have a hidden role as an allergy trigger? It turns out that chamomile’s pollen can contribute to hay fever symptoms, the leaves and flowers can cause skin reactions, and drinking it can also be a problem if you’re highly allergic. That’s because chamomile is just one of many popular plants that are related to ragweed, which is notorious among allergy sufferers. If you’re growing chamomile for brewing tea, you might want to reconsider if you have strong ragweed allergies.
Alternatives: If you want a ground cover, woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) is a fast-growing option that’s hardy to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 28.9 degrees Celsius (zones 5 to 8). It’s happy everywhere from underfoot to spilling over a wall, and it is known for attracting butterflies, bees and beneficial insects. Small pink flowers appear in summer.
Woolly thyme takes full sun, though you may need to provide some light shade in the hottest summer regions, and needs little water once established. It forms a soft mound about 2 to 3 inches high and up to 3 feet wide. Plant in light, well-drained soil and shear it back if it becomes rangy.
There are also two good options for those who want to brew herb-infused teas. One popular choice is English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). There are any number of English lavenders, and they’re known for their purple flowers, fragrance and culinary use.
This evergreen shrub is low-growing and compact, usually reaching 2 feet high and wide, with gray-green or silver-green leaves and flowers blooming above the leaves. It generally blooms from late spring into summer, but some varieties may have repeat blooms later in the summer. It attracts butterflies and birds.
Lavender is hardy to hardy to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 28.9 degrees Celsius (zones 5 to 10). Plant in well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade in the hottest areas. It’s drought-tolerant once established, needing only moderate water. Shear back by half after it finishes blooming to keep it tidy.
If you’re feeling daring, you can always grow mint (Mentha spp.). The problem with mint isn’t that it’s hard to grow; it’s that it’s a challenge to keep in check. Still, it might be worth it for homegrown peppermint tea. If you do want to take on mint, plant it in a container without any cracks or in a location where you don’t mind if it spreads.
Two good choices for tea are peppermint (M. x piperita) and spearmint (M. spicata), though other options are available. They’re hardy to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius (zones 3 to 11). Mature plants will reach up to 2 feet tall. Plant in full sun or partial shade. They prefer moist and well-drained soil, though they can thrive in other locations. They need almost no care while growing. Pick the leaves before the plant flowers.
4. Daisies, especially oxeye daisy, also known as common daisy
(Leucanthemum vulgare, Chrysanthemum leucanthemum)
Oxeye daisy, another ragweed cousin, is one of the most popular summer daisies. It can also be a problem for allergy sufferers. People react to the pollen, leaves, flowers and even extracts derived from it, resulting in hay fever, rashes, hives and other unpleasant symptoms.
Alternative: If you’re looking for white blooms in summer, fall phlox (Phlox paniculata) is a more allergy-friendly choice. Its fragrant flowers bloom throughout the summer in shades from white to pink, rose, red and lavender.
The perennial phlox is hardy to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius (zones 3 to 8). Once you’ve set out the plants, pinch back the tips to encourage them to branch. Provide good air circulation since fall phlox is prone to mildew.
It’s hard not to love sweet-smelling jasmine, a fast-growing and rapidly spreading climber that’s filled with flowers — unless you suffer from allergies, that is. The fragrant flowers, thanks to the pollen, can cause sneezing fits that will drive you indoors.
Alternative: If you want a fragrant climber but don’t want to risk allergies or a plant taking over your garden, try sweet peas (Lathyrus spp.). They don’t have white flowers and may not bloom for as long a stretch, but when it comes to announcing the arrival of spring and adding a sweet fragrance to the garden, they’re hard to beat.
Grow annual sweet pea (L. odoratus) in all climates. Plant in full sun in well-amended soil; it can be fussy. Provide regular water and deadhead (or pick for bouquets) regularly to keep blooms coming. You’ll need to provide protection from birds and support for vining types. You’ll have an amazing choice of kinds to choose from: bushes, vines, heirloom, early-flowering, spring-flowering and summer-flowering.
You can also grow perennial or evergreen sweet pea (L. latifolius). It’s hardy to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius (zones 3 to 11). It blooms all summer and can handle a more arid climate, even naturalizing. Provide moderate water.
Many people come back from a pruning session with their juniper bushes only to discover that their hands are reacting badly. This landscaping standby may be a favorite, but both its pollen and contact with the plant itself can cause hay fever and skin issues. If you are determined to grow juniper even if it bothers you, look for female plants.
Alternative: For a similar look without the reactions, you might want to plant rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). This is a staple of Mediterranean gardens. It’s both fragrant and useful for cooking. Rosemary can be upright, bushy, weeping or creeping. The height ranges from 1 foot to 8 feet, and it spreads readily. It can easily be shaped as well, and it attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
Plant rosemary in full sun and in well-draining soil. Provide little to moderate water and not much fertilizer. Pinch back the tips to keep it in the shape you want. The upright varieties are hardy to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 23.3 degrees Celsius (zones 6 to 9;); prostrate varieties tend to be more tender.
Of course, most people would never knowingly grow ragweed. It deserves its reputation as the main cause of hay fever. All species can cause strong allergic reactions. Unfortunately, there is seemingly no place in the U.S. where it won’t happily grow.
It can be pretty, though, as it blooms in late summer and fall. So if you like the look, but don’t want the allergies, you do have a substitute.
Alternatives: For years, goldenrod (Solidago spp.) was falsely painted with the same pollen-laden brush as ragweed. It’s since been proved that goldenrod’s pollen is carried by insects, and the plant is no more likely to cause allergies than many other plants recommended to hay fever sufferers. Plus, what other plant will give you those waves of yellow plumes in late summer and fall?
You can choose between native goldenrods and goldenrod hybrids, which tend to be shorter and bloom longer. All are hardy to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius (zones 3 to 10). They’re also happy in soils that are less rich, and they need almost no care once they’re established. They also attract birds and butterflies. Goldenrods do best in full sun to partial shade with moderate water. They’re also seldom troubled by pests or diseases.
Sow seeds or set out plants a foot apart. Natives can reach up to 8 feet tall; hybrids tend to be smaller. Deadhead often to keep plants from freely reseeding. Reseeding isn’t as much of a problem with hybrids, but they also won’t reproduce true to their parent plant and should be propagated by division or stem cuttings. Cut down foliage in the winter or leave in place for interest. Divide plants in the spring.
If you’re still iffy about goldenrod but love the idea of yellow blooms in the summer, why not try daylilies (Hemerocallis hybrids)? These adaptable perennials are hardy to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius (zones 3 to 9), take full sun except in the hottest climates and require almost no effort to grow.
Dayliles generally grow 2½ to 4 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide. Many are known for blooming in late spring and early summer, but there are later-bloom hybrids available as well. There are even reblooming types, such as the Starburst series. You can choose among evergreen, semievergreen and deciduous plants too.
Plant whenever the ground can be worked, including winter in mild-climate areas. They’ll do best with well-drained soil, but they can handle any soil type. Provide regular water from spring through autumn. Divide every few years in fall or early spring if they become crowded.
These flowers of summer are also the allergy triggers of summer. Both the pollen and the seeds can cause problems, just as they do with their cousins chamomile, oxeye daisy and ragweed. Some people even react to the leaves when they touch them or brush against them.
Alternative: You don’t have to give up growing these cheery flowers, however. There are now pollenless or hypoallergenic sunflowers. Some of the best-known are ‘Apricot Twist’, ‘Infrared Mix’, ‘Lemon Eclair’, ‘The Joker’, ‘Moonbright’, ProCut Bicolor, ‘Sunbeam’ ‘Sunbright Supreme’ and Sunrich.
This annual can grow in all zones. As the name implies, it loves full sun, and the seeds attract birds, butterflies and people. The plant is fairly unfussy about soil but does need the soil to be loose enough to accommodate its deep taproot. It is also happiest with regular water but can handle drought. You’ll need to stake the larger varieties.
(Wisteria floribunda, W. chinensis)
No matter how much people gush about the romance of wisteria draping over patios and climbing up pillars in spring, if wisteria triggers your allergies, all you’ll be doing is removing yourself from the area as soon as possible. The pollen is a well-known hay fever trigger, and pruning or sometimes even touching the plant can cause skin reactions.
Alternative: If you desire a flowering vine that will sprawl over a pergola or trellis, evergreen clematis (Clematis armandii) or clematis hybrids may be what you are looking for. These deciduous vines love full sun to partial shade and are hardy to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 34.4 degrees Celsius (zones 4 to 9)
Evergreen clematis, with its white scented flowers, can reach 15 to 20 feet tall. Hybrids have large flowers in a range of colors, from white and pink to blue and purple, and can reach 6 to 10 feet tall.
Most kinds of clematis need about five to six hours of sun, but they don’t want to be too hot. The standard line is to keep their feet shady and their heads sunny. Plant in loose, fast-draining soil. They don’t do well in soggy soil, but at the same time, you do need to keep them moist and not let them dry out. Feed monthly with a balanced fertilizer while they’re growing and provide support.
They may be bothered by familiar garden pests and diseases; practice good gardening techniques, provide adequate air circulation, and remove any disease-infected parts of plants and dispose of them away from your garden.
Clematis has another advantage over wisteria: The blooms last longer.