Chicago Life and Style.

Your Home. Your Life. Your Style

Month: May, 2011

Are Chicago’s trees making you sneeze?

My daughter has just begun suffering from seasonal allergies and it’s a sad thing to watch, all the  sneezing and snuffling and coughing.  I do not have seasonal allergies and was hoping she would escape them as well but alas, it looks like we aren’t going to get away with it.  I knew that allergies were becoming more and more common and I assumed that the fault lay solely at the feet of general pollution, climate changes etc.  Little did I know that the trees that we plant (and have been planting for decades) are a major contributing factor to the rise in allergies.

I came across this very interesting article from the Chicago Park District which talks about the trees that major cities have been choosing to plant for decades.  Trees that are low litter and low odor and generally pleasing and accommodating to the city life. Well, it sort of like selective breeding of dogs, if you only pay attention to looks, you often end up with genetic or temperament problems.  Our choice for trees has led to a glut of high pollen producing trees and few that help absorb that pollen. Of course it’s a multifaceted problem and solution but I never considered that our choice of greenery could be harmful to us!

The entire article is reprinted here.  It worth a read and even more than that, it’s worth getting involved at the community/aldermanic level to make sure this is on the radar so we can make better choices as we move forward.

source: Urban Naturalist

Many of us remember Dutch elm disease and how it transformed main streets throughout the country from the early 1930s to the late1970s. With primarily one tree species lining thousands of streets in the U.S., we had a huge source of food for an insect or disease outbreak such as Dutch elm disease. Unfortunately, a shipment of elm logs transported from France to Cleveland, Ohio in 1931, introduced the Dutch elm fungus to the U.S.; approximately 77 million elm trees were wiped out between 1931 and 1980. So we learned a valuable lesson: to diversify street tree plantings to prevent disease outbreaks that cause mass die-offs.

Or did we? The next tree varieties that were determined capable of withstanding harsh urban challenges (pollution, exhaust, road salt, soil compaction, etc.) also became popular to the point of over-planting in many cities. Now, for instance, emerald ash borer is killing ash trees throughout the Midwest and eastern states. It is believed that approximately 15 percent of Chicago street trees are of the ash variety, and soon all of the ashes will be falling down.

Another trend with unforeseen consequences that has been ongoing for some 60 years is the manipulation of trees and shrubs in the lab to create varieties that are less messy and smelly. According to City of Chicago Forester John Lough, in the 1950s it was recommended that nurseries grow more male street tree varieties(non-flowering and non-fruiting) in order to reduce tree litter, odor, size, the presence of thorns, and other attributes considered undesirable in urban areas. Buyers continued to ask for these varieties to the point that it became a nursery standard which continues today.

But there’s a problem: male trees produce a lot of pollen which is what pollinates female trees so they can flower and bear fruit .Additionally, pollen is allergenic to many people. Fewer than 10 percent of the U.S. population reported having allergies 30 years ago. Today that number has skyrocketed to38 percent according to the American College of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology. And allergy rates are significantly higher among urban residents than rural folks, even though there is far more vegetation in rural areas.

As it turns out, four out of the top five selling street trees in the U.S. are male varieties, which means there is far more pollen floating around in cities than ever before and much of it is attracted to our mucus membranes, our skin, our eyes, and our noses and throats. Since there are far fewer female trees and shrubs being planted and many more male types are replacing them, there is much more pollen in the air coinciding with far fewer flowers to trap it. As a result, more pollen is getting trapped by humans.

Of course, pollen isn’t the only thing causing increases in respiratory ailments. Automobile exhaust is another obvious culprit as is dust, tobacco smoke, animal dander, molds, and other airborne substances. Mold in particular is another significant source of increased allergy and asthma rates, and has become increasingly prevalent in the landscape as plant health has declined. Many trees and shrubs are unhealthy for a number of reasons, including poor placement in the landscape, poor or insufficient maintenance, storm damage, insect damage, and others. As their health deteriorates, many plants become vulnerable to attack by insects including aphids, scale, mealy bugs, and white flies. These insects secrete nutrient-rich feces, called honeydew, which attracts mold. The mold quickly reproduces creating millions of tiny spores which become airborne. Like pollen, these spores settle on our skin, eyes, noses, and throats. They can also reach our lungs and cause asthma. The American College of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology reports that asthma rates have exploded to the point that asthma is now the leading childhood chronic disease in America.

“Excessive pollen or mold spores are pollutants,” said agriculture scientist Thomas L. Ogren. “As allergy rates continue to shoot upward, the public will eventually demand that all new city trees planted are either allergy-free or are at least low-allergy selections. Millions of people, urban children especially, will benefit from this switch.”

Ogren is the author of “Allergy-Free Gardening: the Revolutionary Guide to Healthy Landscaping.” He has created a rating system for evaluating the level of allergens produced by trees and shrubs called Ogren Plant-Allergy Scale (OPALS). This system rates plants from 1-10 with 10 being the most allergenic. It is currently used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With this system, land managers can determine how allergenic their plant lists are and make changes in order to limit this level. According to Ogren, some of the most widely planted street trees in Chicago have high allergenic rates, including Green ash males with a rating of 9 on the OPALS scale; Norway maple (8);Horse chestnut (7); Honey locust males (7);Hackberry (8); Kentucky coffee tree males (9); and Linden (7).

Ogren says municipalities and private citizens alike should strive to plant plants that do not exceed a rating of 3-4 on the OPALS scale. However, this is easier said than done. Once again, the propagation of male, low-litter trees and shrubs has been a nursery standard for decades, which means that an overabundance of urban trees and shrubs are male pollen-producers. Lough says that when looking to reverse this trend, the message has to go directly to the landscape nurseries as well as to city planners, landscape architects, land managers, and landscapers who order from them. Nursery owners need to be made aware that just offering male plant species contributes to unhealthy air in towns and cities.

However, even if this can be done, a measurable difference will not be seen in pollen levels for at least a couple of decades, as female flowering and fruiting trees and shrubs gradually replace the pollen producing males. Reversing this trend can begin by doing three things: first, incorporate appropriate native plants into home landscapes; second, ask for a variety of male and female tree and shrub types from landscape and garden centers; third, maintain landscapes in order to retain good plant health for trees and shrubs. We can also support stronger clean air legislation and healthier living in general which will lead to healthier landscapes for both plants and people.



Culture Days and Chicago Street Fests

When I lived in Cleveland a colleague and I got to talking about how unimaginative some people are when it comes to food. As it turns out, her husband was one of those people and because no one I know has the time and energy to make two different kinds of food for every meal, they ended up eating some pretty boring fare most of the time. Then we instituted “Culture Days”.  We would find a local ethnic restaurant and make a night of experiencing a different culture and experimenting with food.  In Cleveland, it can be challenging to keep coming up with new places to go. In Chicago however, we have a plethora of authentic ethnic options. We have whole neighborhoods dedicated to the diverse cultures that make our city great. If you find yourself going to the same old places all the time, get your friends together and institute your own “Culture Days”!

Be sure the check out Chinatown for some Dim Sum, Greektown for some Spanakopita, German Town–aka Lincoln Square-ish for some awesome dark beer, Koreatown–the site is actually in Korean! or any other type of food you can think of! Of course, these rich cultures are not all about food, I just happen to really like food–a lot. 🙂

Now that fest season is here you can indulge your culinary creativity and curiosity while participating in Chicago’s greatest summer pastime–the outdoor street fest!  Check out my website for a complete list of fests and pay particular attention to those focused on some of our local ethnic groups/neighborhoods. In addition, this year a new fest features street food in all its various forms.  Called simply, Street Food Artistry, this fest promises to be a new favorite for all the foodies and fest goers out there!

We live in a fabulously rich city, full of people and food and culture from all around the world, we should celebrate this diversity every day and every way we can.  If we happen to do so under the summer sun with a cocktail in-hand, so be it!

Baseball Schedules

When I first moved to Chicago I lived at the edge of Wrigleyville.  It was so cool that I could walk to the games and enjoy the full experience that is a Cubs game.  On the other hand, I learned very quickly not to plan to try and drive ANYWHERE in/through my neighborhood when there was a game.  I could have benefited from downloading the CUBS schedule into my Outlook/smart phone so I had a handy reminder BEFORE I scheduled anything else during those times.  Well, now you can benefit from my mistake!  Download the full CUBS schedule from their website (complete with instructions) here. It’s also handy to make it look like you know more about what’s going on this season than you actually do! To view the schedule online, sort it etc. click here.

And because I am totally not interested in getting into a south side/north side debate, here is the same useful information for our White Sox!  Downloadable here and online here.  Play Ball!