Allergic Living’s Tree Pollen Allergy Field Guide

in Outdoor Allergies, Tree Pollen
Published: April 16, 2014

Tree Pollen Allergy Tour: North East

Pine Tree PollenThat's not smoke – it's pollen erupting from a stand of pines.

New Jersey is definitely “pine land,” says Dr. Donald Dvorin, certified pollen counter and co-founder of The Asthma Center, an allergy clinic with nine locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Pine tree pollen can become so dense, says Dvorin, that “it almost looks like smoke is coming out of the trees” – so much so that people unfamiliar with the phenomenon have been known to call the fire department.

Although one grain of pine pollen is about 100 microns in size – far smaller than the head of a pin – it’s relatively large compared to other pollen, making it less likely to be windborne, and also less likely to get into your airways and lungs. That’s partly why some experts don’t believe that pine pollen is a common allergen.

Still, according to Dr. John Costa, medical director of allergy clinical practice at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, “If you live in an area surrounded by pine trees and that pine pollen is falling directly downward and landing on your car, your deck and your lawn furniture, and then you touch these things and put your finger near your eye or nose, it can cause problems.”

Watch out for Oak and Mulberry Pollen

ElmsSlippery elms in Manhattan's Central Park rain pollen on passerby.

Other top pollen-producing trees in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, include juniper (no surprise there), elm (slippery elm, not the American variety that was all but wiped out by Dutch Elm Disease in past years), maple, birch, Sweetgums and cottonwood.

But the tree that produces the most pollen every year in the area is likely the tall stately oak.

“It’s in the top echelon of tree pollen production,” says Dvorin. It can produce anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 pollen grains per cubic meter of air, which for one species, says Dvorin, is “tremendous.” (Experts say that, in most of the country, people become symptomatic when pollen counts are 200 per cubic meter and up.)

Thick yellow oak pollen is known to blanket the residential areas of Cherry Hill and Forked River, New Jersey.

“When you get a lot of windy weather, that’s when you see all the cars and roads coated, especially in the suburban residential areas,” says Dvorin. On those days, city workers get out the street cleaning machines, but that doesn’t do much to stem the symptoms of allergic residents, who, says Dvorin, “for the most part just grin and bear it.”

In New York City, male mulberry trees pose a significant allergy problem, according to Ogren. They line the streets in many neighborhoods, chosen by arborists and landscapers because they resist disease and insects, withstand smog and, like all male trees, produce no messy fruit or flowers.

However, it’s only the male trees that produce troublesome pollen, says Ogren, who is promoting a sex change in tree planting to help solve the mulberry pollen problem.

Tree Pollen Allergy Tour: Midwest

AlderIn the Midwest, alder is an earlier pollinator.

This region has the typical allergen-producing trees, including the juniper. In general, trees pollinate in two- or three-week intervals The early trees – think maple, juniper, elm, ash, alder – spread their seeds in March and early April, while the later trees – oak, birch, walnut, mulberry, cottonwood/poplar and pine – cause more problems from mid-April to the end of May.

Juniper is one of the biggest culprits in places such as Kansas City, Missouri. Also topping the list of spring pollen producers in this area are pine and elm trees. Elms can flower at two distinct times – as early as January in some areas and not until April in others.

Elms also have Chicago residents around the tissue box in springtime. Other troublesome trees in the Windy City and surrounding area include ash, maple and oak, according to local allergists.

In Salt Lake City, Utah, the ash-leaf maple, white mulberry and green ash typically top the tree allergy list, causing residents to reach for their antihistamines and decongestants.

But the worst offender is the box elder. The bane of allergy sufferers in Salt Lake, and all across the country, it produces more pollen than any other maple anywhere.

See also:
Top Tips for Managing Tree Allergies
Will Moving Help Avoid Pollen?

Allergic Living gratefully acknowledges Dr. Richard Weber, vice president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado and National Jewish Health, for reviewing this article.