Sneezing a clear sign of bulbs flowering

You'd think we would be free from plant irritants while safely indoors in the depths of winter, but as we sat in the warm conservatory recently, recovering from an early-morning stint in the garden, the sneezing began again. A sure sign that the indoor bulbs have started flowering but I’m used to this.

Friday, 24th January 2020, 4:00 pm

It happens every year post-Christmas, as the fragrant hyacinths and narcissi burst into glorious bloom. Much as I love and eagerly anticipate their presence, they are bearable for a short period only. When they combine with the white Jasminum polyanthum, as at present, the fragrance is too overpowering for this fellow.

Only these three, in pots and an enclosed area, ever give me grief. It's a pleasure to imbibe the sweetly scented heliotrope flowers and fragrant geranium leaves in the same room once the bulb displays have faded and these gems stand alone. Why do I continue growing plants that spark such a reaction? It`s because their visual presence and colour work wonders in January and far outweigh any mild discomfort.

Hardy winter shrubs; mahonia, viburnum, chiminanthus, sarcococca and hamamelis, are all fragrant and currently displaying their scented blooms in the garden, but do not have the same detrimental effect. Nor do the glorious roses or sweet peas of summer. On the daily walk of inspection, it`s possible to handle and savour the leaves of assorted herbs planted near pathways without adverse reaction. Similarly, the leaves of border perennials emitting a strong citrus scent (melissa, thymus and alloysia) can be enjoyed to the full. The difference being they're out in the open.

Paradoxically, there is a problem in summer if the pollen count is high. Congestion and sore eyes are on the cards when riding a bridleway where the grass is in flower. But that`s mild compared to skirting around a field of oilseed rape in full bloom!

So-called hay fever is an allergic reaction to airborne pollen grains. The allergen prompts the immune system to release chemicals in defence. The result; watering eyes and nose, inflammation. An irritant such as a strongly scented flower, can cause the eyes and nose to water but it does not alert the immune system.

Pollen-laden air and strongly scented plants can be bad news for some, but thankfully border flowers without fragrance far outnumber them. Attractive yellow Jasmine for example, in bloom from November to March, and gorgeous blue hebes now extending the display into January, by which time the mixed colours of polyanthus 'Stella' are shining brightly in containers.

Assorted winter heathers are just coming into full bloom, and they'll remain so for at least three months. Snowdrops and winter aconites are also appearing, and a tranche of non-fragrant bulbs will follow. Oh, the anticipation!

Suffering from the January blues? You should try introducing an indoor plant. If that works, which it does for many, you`ll be surrounding yourself with them for years to come. The value of human interaction with plants has been recognised since Greco-Roman times when they highlighted the beneficial effects of herbs.

The presence of living organisms that absorb the Carbon dioxide you exhale and replace it with oxygen, is reason enough for their sharing my home space. They have a calming effect, helping relieve anxiety, and tending them brings an element of well-being. The same applies to garden plants. One NHS regional pilot scheme is under way to explore the possibility of their replacing medication for certain types of depression. Plants, not pills, sounds natural to me.

A good range of potted plants are currently on display in garden centres, each begging to be someone's home companion. There are polyanthus and primulas galore, just like those we've recently dug from the garden and potted-up for indoors. Popular phalaenopsis orchids are not difficult to grow and represent value for money, flowering for weeks on end, then recharging as perennials do before a repeat performance.

All the indoor bulbs will survive and flower again. Once their blooms fade, they can stand in the cold greenhouse until there's a frost-free opportunity to plant them outside. A group of hyacinths emerge every year in the semi-shade under a birch tree. They all started life in bowls for indoor winter display and this year's plants will soon join them. Interestingly, when naturalised the flowering spikes become smaller than the original but much bulkier than bluebells.