May 22, 2008

Voodoo* Botany

My allergies -- mainly to tree pollen -- have been awful this spring. They were jump-started by a March trip to New Mexico, and then getting the flu in April probably did not help either.

An old friend suggested eating locally grown honey. Local honey is often touted as a preventative for hay fever, a sweeter way to desensitize your body than weekly shots. But I think that the suggestion rests on a misunderstanding of botany and a world view that, while appealing, does not always work out.

First, honey is made by bees that fly from flower to flower gathering nectar--and with it, pollen. They transfer the pollen to other flowers of the same species, and plant sex occurs. It is "heavy" pollen.

But the pollen that causes allergies is airborne. These trees -- junipers, elms, whatever -- are fertilized by the wind. (You never see a bee on a juniper tree.) They have "light" pollen. This lighter pollen does not end up in honey, except by accident, and presumably in lesser amounts than the pollen from plants visited by bees.

The idea that local honey prevents hay fever represents, I think, the world view of the 15th-17th centuries, an era when a scientific attitude was not incompatible with a view of the cosmos as harmonious and meaningful to humans. Think of Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton casting astrological horoscopes.

Think of the old herbalists' "doctrine of signatures," the idea that you could tell by looking at a plant what disease it would treat. That doctrine was based on a belief in a meaningful universe with humanity at its center.

At least honey is still good for a sore throat and cough, if they are not too severe.

*I use "voodoo" in the sense that George H.W. Bush used it in referring to supply-side economics, not as a reference to the religion.

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