Last spring I gave a talk to
a group of allergists from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara
Counties (California). I mentioned that I liked to see allergists
hire college horticulture students to map the exact species of
plants growing in a patients yard. Sometimes, as I explained,
without knowledge of exactly what is growing closest to them,
it is next to impossible to figure out the problem.
One of the allergists then told
me this true story: They had a patient, a woman in her 60s,
from Santa Barbara, who was extremely sick and getting sicker
by the day. She was having classic symptoms of both allergy and
asthma, was not responding to any type of treatment, and they
were afraid that she would die. And so they took the unusual
step of sending someone from their office out to her house to
look it all over.
The allergists assistant
didnt find any high allergy plants in her yards. He didnt
find any strange houseplants in her house, nor any unreported
pets or anything of the sort. He saw no walls, windows, bathrooms
or anything that appeared to pose a mold problem. The house was
an older one, and he doubted that it was off-gassing chemicals.
He was about to give up when he noticed a door he hadnt
seen before. Where does that go? he asked her.
To my basement,
she told him.
Now, because basements are rare
in California, he was surprised to discover this. When he opened
the door, turned on the lights and walked down the steps he was
even more surprised. There, growing all over the cement floor
of her basement were thousands of unusual looking mushrooms.
When he asked her why they were there, she told him, Well,
they just started to grow there and I let them grow since they
were so pretty.
Im sure you can figure
out the rest of the story. He took samples of the mushrooms back
to the office and the woman was tested for spores from these
same fungi and it turned out that her entire system was swamped
with these allergenic, poisonous mushroom spores. The mushrooms
were of some rare species native to the southeastern US and no
one ever did figure out how their spores had arrived in that
ladys basement and started growing.
The mushrooms were removed,
the basement was cleaned up and the patient regained her health.
Another interesting episode
of trigger sleuthing: A woman from Lompoc, California asked me
to look over the yard of her apartment to see if I could figure
out what was making her so sick. She was in her late 30s,
married, had always enjoyed excellent health, but was getting
sicker and sicker. She was starting to forget things, had headaches,
sore throats, was always tired, often had stuffed up sinuses,
and now and then would slur her words while she was talking.
More and more she would forget what she was saying right in mid-sentence.
I looked over her yard, found
a male ash tree and a male (fruitless) mulberry tree,
and a hedge of male junipers. I suggested she ask the landlord
to remove all of them and replace them with pollen free female
plants. However, since it was still late winter and none of these
plants were yet in bloom, I doubted that this was a pollen problem
and asked to see inside the apartment.
It was a nice enough apartment,
neat and orderly, and she told me that their rent was very reasonable.
Inside I discovered that one wall in her bedroom, next to her
bed, looked moldy. I also found another wall, a wall in the living
room that also looked moldy. Outside in the yard I discovered
that the rainbird sprinklers for the lawn would hit the wall
directly every time they went around. There had also been a leak
in the roof, directly over the bedroom wall. I suggested she
hire someone to do an inside and outside mold count for her.
This she did and it was found that the mold spore count was high
in the yard, and even higher inside the house. It was highest
in her bedroom.
She then confessed that she
had tried to clean up all this mold, several times, using soap
and water. Afterwards she had felt even sicker.
I suggested that she explain
all of this to the landlord, and immediately move out until it
She did explain it all to the
landlord, but she did not move out. The landlord hired someone
who supposedly cleaned it all up but she just got sicker and
One day a few weeks later she
called me up again. She was crying and told me that her doctor
said that she had MS. The symptoms she was having certainly did
seem like multiple sclerosis but I didnt think that was
her problem. As we talked she would lose it, stutter, slur her
words, forget what shed just said.
She said that shed had
to take a leave of absence from her job since she just couldnt
work any more. When I asked her what she was doing instead of
working, she said she was mostly just lying in her bed. It was
about all she could do. That bedroom, I told her,
is killing you.
I called her back later and
got her husband on the phone. He was now starting to feel kind
of sick himself. Look, I said, a little angry now,
get the hell out of there! Leave that apartment and do
it tonight. Pack a few things, go to a motel and check yourselves
in. Tomorrow you can tell your landlord what you had to do. If
they wont pay for the motel bill, Ill help you find
a lawyer and you can sue him.
They moved out of the apartment
that night and into a nearby motel room. He took some time off
work and the two of them just hung out at the motel, watching
TV, eating in a restaurant around the corner, and they slept
a good deal. The landlord (I think he was finally afraid of a
lawsuit) did agree to cover their motel bill while this was being
On the phone I advised her husband
that he ought to start looking for a new apartment. He told me
that he was starting to feel more like himself again,
and agreed to look for a different place to live.
They stayed at the motel for
two weeks and by the time they moved into their new apartment
she too was starting to feel a little better. I insisted that
her husband move everything from their old apartment himself.
That all their clothes, everything, had to be thoroughly cleaned
before he brought it into their next place. I didnt want
her to even walk in that door again, and she didnt.
As I write this now, it has
been just over two years since they moved out of that mold spore-ridden
apartment. Little by little she started getting better, the slurring
of words stopped, the disorientation stopped, eventually all
the symptoms disappeared. Two months after they moved she went
back to work. Six months later she felt so good she started taking
night classes at the local college. They are now both working
full time, both are taking advanced computer classes in the evenings
and they are doing great. Theres been no more talk about
her having MS either.
This case involved my own daughter,
Naomi, about 16 years ago now. It was springtime and we had just
moved into a new house (new to us but not a new house) in San
Luis Obispo. Soon afterwards Naomi, who was 10 years old then,
started to get sick. She would wake up each morning with a sore
throat and a headache. We took her to doctors but none of them
was able to diagnose the problem or solve it. By summer time
she started feeling better and all her symptoms vanished.
The next spring it started in
again and Naomi got sicker and sicker. We took her to an allergist
and she was tested for many things but nothing was discovered.
At nighttime she would usually feel quite a bit better, but the
next morning she would feel miserable. My wife and I scoured
her room, repainted it, replaced the rugs, did everything possible
(we thought) to clean it up, but still she was sick and getting
One day I was in the backyard
playing wiffle ball with my 8-year-old son, Josh. I pitched a
ball to him and he slammed it foul, straight into this large
shrub that was growing right next to Naomis bedroom window.
A big puff of gray pollen floated up from the shrub (a Yew Pine,
Podocarpus macrophyllus). Look at that, I said to
Josh. Look at all that pollen!
My son looked at me and asked,
Dad, is that a male tree? (He was of course growing
up in our house and I was always talking about male trees, about
pollen-free female cultivars and so on.)
I was embarrassed, since it
was indeed. Yeah, I said, it is a male.
Then what is it doing
in our yard? he asked me.
I felt almost floored. Id
kept the shrub because it was pretty and at the time I had not
read or heard of allergic problems from Podocarpus pollen. But
I didnt feel like trying to explain this to an 8 year old.
When we get done playing ball, I said, well
get rid of it.
We chopped that old Yew Pine
down, dug out the big, tough stump, and the next week we replaced
it with a perfect-flowered pineapple guava bush. I thought that
was the end of that story, but again I was wrong.
Several years later I happened
to mention to a friend about that wiffle ball hitting that bush
and all the pollen, and my wife, Yvonne, said, You forgot
what happened when you and Josh chopped down that tree, didnt
And then she reminded me of
Naomi and the strange sickness no doctors could figure out. Once
you guys got rid of that tree, she said, Naomi got
better right away and shes been fine ever since.
Suddenly it all made perfect
sense. Yew Pines are related to true Yews, of the genus Taxus.
From Taxus trees is made the powerful chemotherapy drug, Taxol,
used against breast cancer. Podocarpus, like Taxus, is a very
poisonous species. It is all poisonous, leaves, sap, roots, stems,
and yes, the pollen too. My own daughter had been getting poisoned,
grain-by-grain, as she slept. Pollen grains of Yew or Yew Pine
are so small that they can easily pass right through a window
screen. No wonder Naomi felt so bad each morning.
One day not too long ago I shook
some of this pollen from a different male Yew Pine onto a glass
slide. I then placed a little piece of window screen over the
slide and photographed what I saw through my microscope. That
photo is posted on this website, and when you look at it you
can see for yourself; that window screen was no protection at
I now know that this same exact
situation is not rare at all; it is quite common. Yews and Yew
Pines are used all the time as foundation shrubs in landscapes.
The landscapers typically plant them right next to bedroom windows.
And almost all of these plants sold are male, pollen-producing
Green Buildings, Green Construction
One of the best things to come
along in quite some time is the trend now toward green construction;
building houses and other building where no materials are used
that will later make people sick. In the past many buildings
and often mobile homes were built with materials that off-gassed
toxic chemicals. The people who worked or lived in these buildings
frequently got terribly sick and sometimes died from this exposure.
These toxic construction chemicals in particular affect children.
There are new laws in most states now to prevent this sort of
contamination but contractors who understand the problem and
go out of their way to avoid it are building the safest buildings.
In 1999 the American Lung Association
in Richmond, Virginia contacted me. They were almost finished
building a new Health House, a Lung Association regional headquarters
where everything possible had been done to assure that this building
would be a healthy place to work in. They were calling their
new green construction place the Breathe Easyâ Office,
and they wanted a new landscape to surround the building, one
that would be beautiful, functional, and as pollen free as possible.
They wanted an allergy free landscape to top off their Breathe
We worked together on this and
today that landscape graces that healthy headquarters. Ive
given talks at that particular office and all the people who
work there tell me that they love working there. The air there
is clean and it just feels good.
People from other states
Health Houses and Healthy Houses and versions of these have also
been using my work to do the same thing. They feel, as do I,
that I makes no sense at all to build a green building, a Health
House, and to then surround it with a typical high pollen, high
asthma and allergy causing landscape. This is a development that
warms my heart to see.
There are many true stories
out there about people made terribly sick because of something
allergic or toxic that they have right close to them. Sometimes
the doctors cant figure out what is wrong with these people
and all too often it is eventually implied that they are perhaps
psychosomatic; that it might be best for them to see a psychiatrist
or a psychologist. But the problem might well be perfectly physical.
The real problem often is that no one has figured it out.