University City

Don’t blame the flowers for your allergies

This story appeared Sunday in some of the Observer’s regional sections.

It happens every year: The sneezing, the itchy eyes, the runny nose and the wrongful blame.

We love to blame the pretty flowers. But according to Larry Mellichamp, director of UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, they’re not the cause of our allergy problems.

“Don’t blame all of the garden flowers for your allergies,” said the botanist, who has studied the region’s plants for the past 37 years.

Each spring, Mellichamp said, he watches media accounts sound the allergy alarm, always accompanying their alert with photos of tulips and cherry blossoms – both plants that are as likely to cause allergies as a lampshade is.

“The pollen of pretty flowers is carried by insects,” he said. “That pollen never gets into the air.”

If you want to find the real culprit, said Mellichamp, look no farther than the trees.

“The vast majority of our trees are wind-pollinated. This is the pollen that gives us hay fever.”

But even then, the botanist with a bias for blooms allows a few exceptions.

“The showy, flowering trees like dogwoods and cherries and magnolias – the pretty ones – those do not cause hay fever,” said Mellichamp.

According to Mellichamp, it’s the tall forest and nut trees – the oaks, hickories, maples, elms, ashes, birches and black walnuts – that make you miserable.

In the past few years, pollen counts, the number of pollen grains floating in a cubic meter of air at any one time, have been on the rise.

Many theories as to why that is occurring lead back to global warming.

“There have been some studies that have shown increased carbon dioxide levels have led to both an increase in pollen count and potency of the pollen,” said Dr. Ekta Shah, an allergist at Charlotte Medical Clinic.

This year, Shah has seen a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in the number of patients who are coming to her office complaining of allergies.

That’s the price we pay for living in the South and Southeast, she said.

Each year, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America publishes a list of the worst cities for allergy sufferers. The list is based on the pollen count, the number of people who use allergy medications and the number of board-certified allergists practicing in the city.

This year Charlotte ranks 40th, down from 23rd last year and third the year before that.

Mellichamp hasn’t noticed any consistent gradual rise in pollen over the years, but he noted it will always vary from year to year.

This spring’s late cold weather, followed by its sudden warm weather, caused several species of trees to release pollen in unison.

“It seemed worse than usual because a lot of trees that normally would have been spread out over several weeks all bloomed over just a two-week period,” he said. “A lot was dumped on us all at once.”