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You Can Blame Your Allergies on 'Botanical Sexism,' TikTokers Say

An illustration of botanical sexism at work.

Ellen Lindner / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • People on TikTok are pointing to botanical sexism as part of the reason why allergies seem to be rising.
  • Botanical sexism refers to planting practices in urban areas that favor male, pollen-releasing plants over female, pollen-absorbing plants. 
  • The practice has been in place for over 60 years, but its effects can still be mitigated.

Usually, the itchy eyes and runny noses that are the hallmark of seasonal allergies are a nuisance to be avoided, rather than the spark for a lively environmental health debate. But when Ellie Botoman posted a TikTok in early July about pollen and climate change, the video garnered so many likes and views that she couldn’t even open her app without it crashing. 

Botoman’s video, which amassed nearly half a million likes and 2.8 million views, is about high pollen levels that make our allergies and asthma worse. Climate change and botanical sexism—a term coined by horticulturist and allergy researcher Tommy Ogren—are in part to blame, she says. 

Botanical sexism, as Ogren defines it, refers to planting practices in urban areas that favor male, pollen-releasing plants over female, pollen-absorbing plants. 

Ogren argues that this favoring of male over female plants led to high concentrations of pollen that in turn makes seasonal allergies and asthma more prevalent. 

“Reading [Ogren’s] work really was kind of what drove me to make the TikTok,” Botoman says. “I thought it was a really crazy subject that I feel like a lot of people don't really know about. And especially with worsening heat waves and extreme weather events across the country, I thought it would be a really important thing for people to know that, ‘Hey, we have this really kind of messed up planting practice that's going on in many of our public spaces, in our cities.’”

What Is Botanical Sexism?

Botanical sexism refers to an urban planting phenomenon that's occurred in the last 60 years, which Ogren says has taken a toll on our collective health.

Though many plants are multi-sex, others are single-sex, meaning some of the species releases pollen and others absorb pollen. An unnaturally high number of these male single-sex plants contribute to allergies and asthma

American elm trees, which used to line streets and fill urban and suburban green spaces, were largely wiped out in the mid 20th century with Dutch elm disease. At that same time period, a 1949 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture then recommended replanting with only male plants for certain species so that cities wouldn’t have to deal with falling pods, seeds, or fruit from female trees. 

These recommendations arriving alongside a sudden vacancy that needed filling created a perfect storm for these now widespread practices.

“The idea is that a male tree is far superior to a female tree and to never plant a female tree because they're messy,” Ogren tells Verywell. “So, when they put in the description of the tree and they say it's seedless, or podless, or pod-free, or low maintenance, what it means is that it's male. And the problem is that these separate sex male plants produce amazing amounts of pollen and then there are no females to trap the pollen.”

Without female trees to absorb the pollen, it floats in the air and clings to surfaces, contributing to symptoms for the nearly 60 million people in the U.S. with seasonal allergies and 25 million with asthma. 

The high concentrations of pollen, Ogren believes, aren’t just triggering symptoms, but are actually making them more common. Studies have shown that asthma and seasonal allergies rates are rising, and more exposure to pollen is just making it worse.

Planting Practices Going Viral 

Clearly, the topic struck a nerve. People across TikTok are now sharing information about botanical sexism, and a number of videos on the subject have gone viral. 

Mary Black, a TikToker and climate activist based in North Carolina, made a video about botanical sexism back in April, receiving thousands of likes. She thinks that her followers interacted with the video because they’re interested in climate change issues and the ways that systems like sexism and capitalism influence daily life—plus, people really don’t like allergies, she says. 

“Even something as small as just making your allergies worse because there's a bunch of male trees putting out pollen, I think people were just like ‘What?’” Black tells Verywell. 

Botoman, too, noticed that people online were really interested in botanical sexism because it provides a link between their own lived experiences and bigger picture environmental issues.

“People are noticing that climate change and pollution at higher rates in their areas have also made their allergies and their asthma worse,” Botoman says. “I think having this sort of small thing that is pretty easy to observe, people have really sort of attached to it.” 

Ogren didn’t know much about TikTok before his research started going viral on the app. But he made an account so that he could send Botoman a message to thank her for making the video. He’s excited that the platform is spreading his ideas among a more Gen Z audience.

“It’s actually pretty cool,” Ogren says. “Maybe I'll reach some younger folks who will actually give a fig and do something about it.”

What’s Driving Botanical Sexism?

Even though the term botanical sexism may seem to imply the kind of intentional discrimination that we typically associate with sexism in our own human communities, Ogren says that the nursery and horticulture industry of past and present isn’t coming from a place of malice. 

“I would say most of it has been carelessness,” Ogren says. 

Still, these organizations and industries have built their business around it. Ogren says there’s a lot of money involved in growing and selling male plants, and in allergy medication. Reversing course and incorporating more female trees would likely take a large amount of time and financial resources. 

Because this preference for male single-sex trees has existed for so long, it can also be a challenge to even find single-sex female plants. But, accessibility and financial issues aside, Ogren thinks that it’s unfair to ignore the issue.

“At a certain point, it is getting sexist,” Ogren says. “It's not showing any empathy for literally millions of people who have allergies.”

Finding Solutions 

Ogren says the solution is pretty simple—stop planting more male single-sex trees, and instead, plant female ones to get a more natural balance. 

A few cities, including Albuquerque and Las Vegas, are implementing pollen control ordinances that prohibit people and nurseries from selling and growing plants that release high amounts of pollen. 

On a more individual level, Ogren suggests surrounding yourself with plants that don’t release as much pollen, whether that means adding female plants to your garden or talking with your landlord to remove plants that trigger bad seasonal allergies. 

To help figure out which plants to avoid, Ogren developed a rating scale he calls OPALS (Ogren Plant Allergy Scale) which ranks plants on a one to 10 scale from least to most allergenic. The rating system is used by the USDA, and by a few horticulturists outside of the U.S., Ogren says. The most recent version is in his book “The Allergy-Fighting Garden,” the idea being that people can use OPALS as a reference for how to diminish their allergy and asthma triggers as much as possible. 

Even if you’re not much of a gardener and don’t want to track down pollen-free plants, Black thinks that simply being aware of what’s impacting the environment and your health is a step in the right direction. And TikTok is a great place to have those conversations.

“It doesn't always have to be like you're marching and rallying, or recycling everything but [just] as long as you have a conscious awareness of what's going on and you're able to engage in these topics, and even call them out as it happens,” Black says. “Because there's a lot of environmental and climate constructs within the way we live, work, and play—down to the clothes that we buy, the food that we eat, and how all those intersections tie into having a positive impact on the environment and on the planet. And let's talk about it.”

What This Means For You

Experts say you can take steps to plant pollen-free trees around your home. You can also learn more about how to treat different seasonal allergies here.

Just One Piece of the Allergy and Asthma Puzzle 

Planting more female trees and bushes isn’t a cure-all for seasonal allergies and asthma, however. The problem is much more complex. 

“Allergies occur when your immune system becomes hypersensitive to a particular allergen — in this case, it is various pollens,” Purvi Parikh, MD, FACP, FACAII, allergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network tells Verywell. “Many factors go into allergies—genetics, lifestyle, where you live, pollution, air quality.”

Parikh says that there are a number of hypotheses as to why people are experiencing asthma and seasonal allergies at higher rates. One is genetics—having a parent with allergies increases your chances of developing it too, she says. Another is that less exposure to good bacteria makes our immune systems more susceptible to allergens. 

“We are killing off the good bacteria that keep our immune systems in check from becoming allergic by over-sanitizing, industrialization, paving over all the soil, and eating junk food,” Parikh says. 

Whatever may be the root cause of allergies and asthma—whether it be genetics, bacteria, environment, modern lifestyle, or something else entirely—both Ogren and Parikh agree that climate change is making the situation worse. 

Warming temperatures mean longer blooming seasons or more pollen in the air for longer periods of time—not a winning combination for people with seasonal allergies and asthma.

“It's not just that it's getting warmer and the season is longer, it's also that the carbon dioxide levels are the highest they've ever been in history, and carbon dioxide works just like a plant hormone,” Ogren says. 

More exposure to carbon dioxide makes some plants bloom and produce seeds even faster, which means some species may only produce more pollen and seeds as global warming continues. And, Ogren explains, there are other species that now are blooming twice in one season because the warm weather season is long enough for them to do so. He’s also concerned about pollutant particles sticking to pollen grains and settling in our bodies as we breathe. 

The complicated nature of climate change and all of the effects it has on our lives can sometimes feel paralyzing or anxiety-inducing. But, Botoman explains, taking stock of our health and the ways that environmental decisions of the past impact us now is an important way for us to reflect on our place in the natural world. 

“I think for much of humanity we thought of ourselves as separate from nature and separate from the environment,” Botoman says. “I wanted to, with that video, show how those divisions are really not as strict as we like to think they are. All these systems, all these experiences, these impacts on our body, they all happen simultaneously, they all happen together in this interconnected way.”

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