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Book Review: Safe Sex in the Garden – and Other Propositions for an Allergy-Free World

  • Subject: [cg] Book Review: Safe Sex in the Garden – and Other Propositions for an Allergy-Free World
  • From: Alliums garlicgrower@earthlink.net
  • Date: Thu, 15 Jan 2004 14:03:44 -0500

Hi, Folks!

Here's my next-to-last book review until February. PASA has granted me a press pass, so I should have several articles from the February conference to share. Let me know if you are interested in using this book review -- I retain copyright.


Safe Sex in the Garden – and Other Propositions for an Allergy-Free World by Thomas Leo Ogren, Ten Speed Press, 2003.  ISBN:  1-58008-314-5, $14.95.
As young teens, my female friends and I would sneak into our parents’ libraries and read the books on sex out loud to each other.  While the spine on this book says only “Safe Sex in the Garden,” hopeful teenagers won’t find much to help them navigate human intimacies; however, if they suffer from allergies, they (and their parents) will want to refer to the book often.
Ogren’s wife, mother and sisters all suffer from hay fever and asthma.  When he reviewed the literature, he found little guidance, so he began serious horticultural research into the relationship between flowering plants and human (ill) health.  His first efforts resulted in the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALSTM), the first plant-allergy ranking system, now used by USDA to develop allergy rankings for major urban areas.  His first book, Allergy-Free Gardening: The Revolutionary Guide to Healthy Landscaping, listed commonly used plants on a scale from (1) least allergenic to (10) highest allergy-causing potential.
In Safe Sex in the Garden, Ogren broadens his approach to include techniques, observations and environmental modifications that home and apartment dwellers can easily make to reduce allergens (and thus allergy symptoms) for both people and pets. And it all starts by knowing how your plants have sex.
Most urban allergies are based on too many positively charged pollen grains (male) invisibly clogging up the air in search of a negatively charged surface with which to meld.  In nature, where the male and female of a species are usually in balance, these pollen grains are lured into negatively charged pistils (female) to produce seeds. Unfortunately, for the last 50 years, landscapers, urban planners and home gardeners have been planting “seed-free/litter free” versions (ie males) of popular plants and not planting females to scoop up the males’ pollen.  When the pollen can’t find a pistil, it tries to meld instead with the most ubiquitous negatively charged surface – the moist membranes of the human nose, eyes and mouth.
Ogren wants you to figure out if you’re surrounded by male plants whether from indoor potted plants, garden beds or street tree plantings, so he spends several chapters describing plant sexual characteristics in such an engaging manner that you’re sure that if only you had had him as your high school botany teacher, you’d never have forgotten anything, including how to pronounce “monoecious.”  Once you know the sex of your plants, he advises you on how to balance the male/female ratio so that the pollen makes seeds, rather than havoc with your nose.
While most allergies are from pollen, Ogren wants to reduce all plant-based suffering.  Therefore, he has two excellent chapters on indoor houseplant and outdoor tree care (sickly plants are breeding grounds for mold and insect dander which also aggravates allergies), strong recommendations for organic lawn and garden care (no chemical residues which can also trigger allergies), a chapter on plants that cause skin rashes, another chapter on poisonous plants and poisonous pollen (not always the same species) and pointers on both preventing allergies in your pets and observations to make before deciding that a cat or dog is the source of someone’s allergies (often, it’s a delayed reaction to a nasty strain of pollen on the animal, rather than the animal itself.)
Ogren’s style can be glib at times and his examples are weighted toward California (where he lives, and it appears, the gaudiest trees, like birds, are male.).  In compiling his lists, he errs on the side of caution, but if one suffers from allergies, one WANTS an author who errs on the side of caution!  These quibbles aside, if you have allergies and want clean air both inside and out, buy this book and consult its lists before buying any new (preferably female) plants.
Reviewed by Dorene Pasekoff, Coordinator
St. John’s United Church of Christ Organic Community Garden
Phoenixville, PA

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