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If You Start Sneezing don't Blame the Acacias

Norbert Schaeper

In the past I had not planted acacias in my garden due to a belief that they caused problems for those with allergies, hay fever and asthma. Recently I contacted the Acacia Study Group on the matter and received the following advice:

"Acacias are much maligned as far as allergies go and one often gets the impression that they are a major cause of hay fever. Unfortunately it is estimated that only about 5% of the population are sensitive to Acacia pollen but this is much less than the percentage allergic to grass pollen and when both acacias and grasses flower together (as is often the case) the acacias are blamed for hay fever. Severe reactions to Acacia pollen have not been recorded. This data is from a 1996 letter from the Deputy Director of Health Services in Queensland.

Acacia pollen is large, heavy, sticky and dispersed by insects. It is not readily distributed by wind (as is grass pollen) so you really need to be very near the flowers to be affected. I have heard some people accuse the Wattle scent for being irritating but that would not cause hay fever.

Acacia pubescens   
Acacia pubescens   
Acacia ulicifolia   
Acacia ulicifolia   

I have never heard of any distinction between the different species of Acacia but this may be a possibility as people can be allergic to different species of grasses. From my own experience I have a son who suffers severe hay fever at times but he is not affected by my habit of bringing Acacia flowers indoors whenever I can and he does most of my photography with Acacia flowers. I hope this is of some help to you. Probably the only way to find out if you are OK with an Acacia would be to take flowers indoors with you at a time when you are free of other allergies."

Earlier this year the Queensland Minister for Health wrote a letter that, while not contradicting the above, puts another slant on the issue. He wrote:

"Certain flowering trees and shrubs, including wattle, jacaranda, jasmine, pine trees, eucalypts and tibouchinas are frequently blamed for hay fever symptoms, but do so primarily through chemical (perfume) hypersensitivity and perhaps, in some people, through truly allergic reactivity." The letter referenced the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) as having helpful information. From the ASCIA website I've selected two points (see footnote 1):
  • "Some plant species (mainly highly flowered plants such as wattle) produce small amounts of pollen which are distributed by birds and bees from one plant to another and only occasionally trigger allergies. "

  • MYTH 5. Wattle is a common cause of hay fever. The major plant allergens are microscopic. They primarily derive from grasses and weeds whose flowers (see footnote 2) release many thousands of pollen grains into the air in a single day. They can travel very long distances [even thousands of kilometres] and because of their small size easily penetrate noses, eyes and mouths. Local folklore often implicates certain flowering trees and shrubs; eg wattle, jacaranda, jasmine, pine trees, eucalypts, tibouchina, privet and so on, but these mainly rely on bees for cross-pollination. Some of these plants may induce hay fever symptoms but do so primarily through chemical [perfume] hypersensitivity and perhaps in some through truly allergic reactivity. Rarely does removal of the suspects result in significant reduction of symptoms.

Another member of the Acacia Study Group advised that the Asthma Foundation has information on allergies on their website. A section called 'Asthma and Allergy Friendly Gardens' contains lists of plants (native grasses, ground-covers, shrubs and trees) that are recommended, however, these lists do not include any Acacia. It also lists of plants to avoid, which again does include any acacias. As acacias do not feature in the latter list, I think, we can safely assume that the Asthma Foundation consider acacias non-allergenic.

I have decided to take a chance and have recently planted Acacia ulicifolia and A.pubescens in my garden. When they come into flower, hopefully next year. I'll see how (and if) my family and I react.

From the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society Sutherland Group, date unknown.

Editors's Footnote 1: The information on the ASCIA website may have changed since the original article was published. I have used different extracts from the ASCIA site as I could note locate the ones originally quoted.

Editors's Footnote 2: The original article stated "...whose seed pods release many thousands of pollen grains", which is incorrect.

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