It’s that time of year again when spring returns and trees begin to grow back their leaves and start to produce enough pollen to coat the streets with a thin layer of yellow dust. In other words, time to make a trip to the pharmacy and hope that your allergy medicine of choice is still in stock. For the New York Times this means it is time for an eye-opening piece by Thomas Ogren about the prospect of an “allergy-free New York.” Ogren details how the street trees in New York City are not just producing pollen but are doing so at levels much higher than they were even just fifty to sixty years ago:
“Street trees weren’t always as allergenic as they are today. Back in the 1950s, the most popular species planted in the United States was the Native American elm, which sheds little pollen. Millions of these tall, stately trees lined the streets of towns and cities from coast to coast. Sadly, in the 1960s and ‘70s, Dutch elm disease killed most of the elms, and many of them were replaced with species that are highly allergenic.”
Ogren continues by describing how most of the trees in New York City, when possible, are males compounding the pollen problem exponentially. Male trees are often chosen by parks departments and city planner because they produce much less “litter” for city maintenance crews; no rotting fruits, dying flowers or seed pods to be picked up off the sidewalk. This choice though comes at a high price: pollen. Males trees, while neater, produce all the pollen that causes allergic reactions and coats downtown with a sheen of tree sperm.
Ogren ends his article suggesting that the city planners who filled our cities with high pollen-producing trees, replace them with lower allergy trees as they grow old or are knocked over by accident, and diversify the tree population so it becomes harder for city dwellers to develop allergies to specific species.
These are both excellent suggestions, but they miss the most important implications of this sex-selective process—the concept of humans once again manipulating nature. City planners and landscape architects have always wrestled with the balance of control that humans have over their environment, and the ability to be sexist with our trees may be taking this control too far. Creating a city filled with male trees means that those trees are dependent on us to pollinate them and continue their species. On a mass level this has some shocking implications.
I worry that placing ourselves in the middle of the natural process of tree growth is putting more pressure on us in the future to maintain plant growth than we, as a species, can and should take on.
Bio: Alex Smith is an intern at Guernica. Read her last recommendation of SANNA Designs “here”:https://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1679/rec_room_alex_smith_sanna_arch/.