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Allergies got you down? Don't blame cottonwood fluff.

  • Author: Jill Burke
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 1, 2017
  • Published June 26, 2016

When the snowy white fluff from cottonwood trees starts to fly through the air, blanket the ground and clog our window screens (and just about everything else), many allergy-sufferers hit system overload.

Although the onset of sneezing, wheezing and watery eyes seems to coincide with this "summer snow," it's not the culprit. Pollen counts for male cottonwood trees peak about three weeks before female cottonwood trees launch their seed pods.

Resilient and prolific, these notorious trees from the poplar family have earned a bad rap largely because of the nuisance caused by cloudy puffs of fiber netting that allow the seeds to kite and parachute for miles.

"It is the most-hated tree in Alaska. I have actually had legislators talk to me about whether we can zone cottonwoods or restrict their growth," said Steve Brown, a professor and district agriculture agent for the University of Alaska's Cooperative Extension Service for the Mat-Su area.

"I think the most common call I get this time of year is, 'How do I kill cottonwoods?' " he said.

The fastest-growing tree in North America, cottonwood seeds can germinate in a day and grow up to 6 feet tall in the first year.

Flaming young trees with a garden torch just until they wilt does the trick for killing the plant, Brown said.

Too much flame and the roots know something's wrong and will grow new shoots. But hit the sweet spot — wilted and dead but not incinerated — and the roots will continue to send water and nutrients up into the plant, which runs the roots out of energy and kills them, he said.

As for managing the "snow," Brown recommends checking air filters on anything in your home, vehicles or garden equipment that suck air. Chances are the filters are clogged.

Pollen: The real culprits

Alaska's early, warm summer has created a perfect storm for airborne pollen from sources other than cottonwood trees.

"The time that we start seeing the fluff is when grass peaks," explained Dr. Jeffrey Demain, director of the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska. "Any grass you see is a culprit."

Fireweed, which starts to bloom around the same time, is often also wrongly accused, Demain said. As with other ornamental flowers, fireweed's sticky pollen travels on the legs of honeybees, not through the air, he said.

In Alaska and worldwide, allergy seasons are starting earlier, lasting longer and the pollen cycles of trees, willows and grasses are overlapping more, Demain said.

Prolonged, sustained pollen cycles have allowed tree pollen levels to remain moderately high late into June, when they'd normally be tapering off, just as grasses are about to hit their peak, he said.

Surviving allergy season means minimizing exposure and controlling symptoms.

Demain recommends closing windows and staying indoors in the morning and evening when grasses pollinate. Midday and early afternoon are better times to be outdoors.

Also, change your clothes and wash your hands and face as soon as you get in the house. Use a HEPA filter to remove allergens from the air. And be cautious with pets that spend time outdoors.

"Keep the pets off the bed or you'll be sleeping with the pollen, too," Demain said.

Open windows wide on rainy days.

Non-sedating antihistamines, nasal rinses, nasal steroids and showering before bed can help lessen symptoms, but if symptoms remain unresolved it's a good idea to see the doctor, Demain said.

Battling bugs

Warm, mild weather has also yielded an abundance of bugs.

"People are pouring into our office right now with bags of bugs for us to identify," Brown said.

The warm winter of 2014-2015, coupled with this year's warm winter, has allowed more bugs to survive throughout the year. That, plus a warm, relatively dry summer is the perfect setup for bug paradise.

"The biggest news of all is the aphid infestation that has hit the birch and the aspen," Brown said during an interview by phone earlier in the week. He'd pulled over near Hatcher Pass to take the call, and happened to park next to a birch tree with "so much sap falling it looks like it is raining," he said.

That "rain," also known as honeydew, is aphid excrement, a byproduct of all the nibbling and eating they're doing.

To curtail an aphid invasion, Brown suggests using a hose to spray water on the underside of the leaves and trunk of the tree. The aphids will come off and can't get back up, he said.

Ladybugs, also called ladybird beetles, are another effective strategy. Release the aphid-eaters into a soaking wet garden at night.

Brown said he's also seeing a lot of carpenter ants.

The ants don't eat wood, but they do excavate it (and sometimes Styrofoam) to make a safe place to nest and rear young. They are known to invade rotting logs, stumps and occasionally damp heartwood, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Brown recommends boric acid as a nontoxic control method. Spray it into nests and on the ground around them, he said.

Pollen. Bugs. Lofty fluff. Summer nuisances are upon us and are abundant —  inconveniences that can overload your immune system and your patience. You've been warned, so don't delay. A good battle plan will allow you to spend more time enjoying summer instead of fighting it.

 Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by "Burke's Law No. 1 — never take no for an answer." Meaning, don't give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. Share your ideas with her at jill@alaskadispatch.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com.

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