Digging In: Arizona's allergy season exacerbated by people

Achoo! Is it the time of year that you dread? Headaches, sneezing, and a runny nose all contribute to a miserable experience when pollen is the air.

Did you know that Arizona at one time was a haven for allergy sufferers? This is no longer the case. Most of our native plants are insect pollinated and therefore non-allergic. But as people come to Arizona and bring with them plants from different areas, allergy problems in Arizona increase.

Exactly what is pollen? To answer that question, we need to learn about basic flower parts. Flowers have female and male parts. The female part of the flower consists of the stigma, style, and ovary. This where seed fruit and seed development occur. The stamen, which is the male part of the flower, produces the pollen.

Pollen is produced in the anther. Pollination occurs went the pollen grain is deposited on the stigma, the female part. Fertilization can take place on the same flower or on a different flower of the same species. The point of the entire process is to ensure production of the next generation of plants. The side effects of this process are the resulting sinus headaches and other discomforts allergic individuals experience.

The pollination process starts very early in the morning during allergy season. Pollen emission starts just after dawn, when the flower opens and the anthers are exposed to the air. As they dry, the anthers split open and the exposed pollen grains are available for transport.

It is during this stage of pollination that causes trouble. Here in Arizona, insects and wind are the most important forms of pollen transports.

Insect pollination is not the culprit in hay fever. It is the wind-pollinated plants that contribute mightily to the discomfort of allergy sufferers.

These wind-pollinated plants generally produce small and unscented flowers. The flowers release large amounts of light, dry pollen. Because wind transport of pollen is such a chance occurrence, much more pollen is produced. These wind-born pollens are inhaled and lodged in either the trachea, respiratory tract, or stomach. In turn, they cause the typical symptoms associated with allergies.

The body tries to fight off the unknown substance with special antibodies that only allergy sufferers have. These antibodies cause the release of histamines that swell respiratory tissues and cause coughing and sneezing. This helps in the expulsion of the pollens.

The amount of similar plants, creating a large volume of pollen, may be at the core of the problem. The over-use of one grass or shrub or tree in the landscape may explain why you are suffering. The use of varied plants is recommended to alleviate allergies.

Some of the primary offenders are Bermuda grass, fruitless mulberry, and the olive trees. Mesquite trees, Pampas grass, tamarisk and male cottonwood tress are others to avoid.

Substitutes for the above could be blue palo verde, catclaw acacia, desert willow, and Texas mountain laurel.

Using non-allergenic plants will help tremendously. If you have pollen producing plants in your landscape, you can lessen the severity of your reaction by selective pruning, maintenance, and the use of chemical sprays.