Image: Jan Moninckx, Moninckx Atlas, 1686–1709.

A blooming marvellous innovation

Image: Jan Moninckx, Moninckx Atlas, 1686–1709.
Image: Jan Moninckx, Moninckx Atlas, 1686–1709.

I know that this year’s British summer hasn’t been much to write home about (and you would be writing home to the UK– who would have sojourned in that sodden isle given the choice?). But at least the traditional hay fever (seasonal allergic rhinitis – or pollinosis if caused generally by pollen) hasn’t been too bad this year as a result. But we’ve got to keep positive and look to the future, and hay fever could return and be as bad as in future years. So, welcome news that allergen-free pelargoniums have been created (at last, really useful research! and definitely something to write home about…) by the appropriately florally named Begoña García-Sogo et al. Using our old friend Agrobacterium and GM (genetic modification) they engineered some plants that lasted longer (florists will love that! almost as much as oil barons welcome cars powered by hydrogen from water…) – by producing more cytokinin – and others that were male sterile, in which pollen grains – a hay-fever-causing agent – were not observed (so no chance of the transgenes being unwittingly introduced to any wildtype pelargonium crops in your neighbour’s garden). And, by way of my own modest attempt at increasing outreach of a scientific publication – as encouraged so to do by Chris Gunter and Anne Osterrieder – I’m happy to advise that this article has been blogged by Simon Harold (who did not take part in the research reported), whose post gives a really good background to the science and relevance of the work carried out.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]


  • Surely Pelargonium pollen is very unlikely to cause hayfever as the flower is insect-pollinated, not wind-pollinated?

  • Maybees, but what do people (even hayfever sufferers, I suspect) tend to do to flowers? They put them close to their noses and sniff them to see what they smell like. What better opportunity to hoover up any pollen and get it directly into the body…

  • Wind-blown pollen from Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese ‘cedar’ or sugi) is a major allergen in Japan: huge plantings over the last 50 years have acerbated the problem enormously. There are several transgenic breeding programmes to develop male-sterile sugi – here are some in a quick Google-scholar link:

    I remember teaching a course in Siena, Italy, where I was using lily pollen and confidently expected to source the material from the numerous florists in the city on the morning before the practical. Unfortunately, every one of them sold only emasculated lilies and unopened flowers were infertile!

    Meanwhile, I suggest Forget-me-snot as the varietal name for an allergen-free Pelagonium.

  • Lilies are emasculated because they drop huge amounts of dark-coloured pollen and annoy neat and tidy houseproud types.

    I have hayfever and have never had a problem with any insect-pollinated flower. You generally have to be sensitised by exposure to large amounts of the particular type of pollen before you become allergic to it. I spent 6 months in Spain without hayfever until my immune system started to recognise the new pollens. The plant hunter Bowles was, in part, on the run from his hayfever on his travels.

    I think it would be unlikely to get enough of the heavy pollens of insect-pollinated flowers to sensitise the immune system however enthusiastically you sniff. They are designed to stick to things.

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