Experts examine viral theory of “botanical sexism”

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BuzzFeed News; Getty Images (2)

Ellie Botoman didn’t expect to start a messy internet battle over trees.

The 24-year-old was relaxing in her pajamas in her Brooklyn apartment one day in July when she decided to create and share a fateful video on TikTok.

“When you realize that allergies / asthma in North America got worse [because] landscapers and city planners thought male trees were easier to maintain, ”says his legend TikTok. “And they’ve planted so many male trees that these species are now releasing tons of pollen every year to compete for a few females. This lack Biodiversity and climate change fueling longer and earlier pollen seasons have resulted in accelerated rates of allergies and asthma. So you sneeze and get congested all day long due to botanical sexism. “

Botoman’s TikTok was viewed 2.9 million times and generated almost 4,000 comments.

Botoman, a writer who works in public relations and enjoys science fiction, told BuzzFeed News that she never imagined TikTok would spark an online debate about whether urban landscaping is in fact sexist and that capitalism has caused allergies and deprived homeless people of food. – but he did.

“City planners who are mostly male have decided that female trees are too messy. And so they planted an overwhelming majority of male trees that release pollen, but not enough female trees to take in the pollen, so we have more pollen floating in the air than ever, leading to an increase in allergies. », TikToker @ jaimalenehough0 said in his post on July 10, three days after Botoman’s post. “But what everyone forgets to add is that the reason female trees are messy is because they bear fruit. And I firmly believe that botanical sexism is driven by capitalism and ensures that people who live in urban areas do not have access to the fresh fruits and vegetables provided by companies.

The post has nearly 800,000 likes and has been shared 34,000 times.

“I knew capitalism was making money from your allergies,” a TikToker @DANNIE commented on @ jaimalenehough0’s video.

In another response to the same video, TikToker @little death wrote: “ok but have you had to manage a fruit tree? if we had fruit trees on the streets, they would be inundated with rodents and would quickly become a safety hazard.

“We are taught from an early age that nature is something we are meant to consume, so people have just assumed that botanical sexism is a product of capitalism, which I think touches on this debate on how which we, as a society, use our spaces and treat our land, ”Botoman said in response to TikTokers comments on his own video.

Botoman said she first learned about “botanical sexism” after reading a article in Scientific American through Tom Ogren, a horticulturalist and allergology researcher who coined the expression. The article cites 1949 USDA Agriculture Directory, which reads: “When used for street planting, only male trees should be selected, to avoid nuisance caused by cottonseed. “

It’s important to note that this passage from the USDA specifically refers to poplars, a dioecious tree, which means it has male and female parts on different and distinct trees, said Sarah Taber, who identifies with as an agricultural and food systems strategist. The passage goes on to say that female poplars are dangerous for street planting because they clog sewers and drainage pipes. Taber added that interpreting the directory passage to imply that “USDA recommends using men” for all city planning is an “intentional misreading” of the agency’s advice.

Beth J. Harpaz / AP

A quiet streetscape in Historic St. Nicholas’ District, also known as Striver’s Row, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City.

But Ogren argued that his theory is only about dioecious trees, and he doesn’t really care about other species that don’t have separate male and female trees.

“Female trees do not produce pollen, but they trap and remove large amounts of pollen from the air and turn it into seeds,” Ogren writes in Scientific American. item, titled “Botanical Sexism Cultivates Local Allergies,” which inspired Botoman’s TikTok. “Female trees (and female shrubs as well) are not just passive, but are active trees that fight allergies. The more female plants there are in a landscape, the less pollen there will be in the air in the immediate vicinity.

“I just put two and two together, and I said if you have a female plant, you have an allergy-free plant,” Ogren told BuzzFeed News. “Why? Because it doesn’t produce pollen.

Ogren, 74, is not on TikTok, but he heard about Botoman’s post and said she cited her research accurately. He said he was surprised his theory went viral, but was happy to see conversations about botanical sexism unfold among young TikTokers, especially because he’s been passionate about trees since he was a child. .

“A lot of trees are touching for me,” he said. “I have early memories of climbing apricot trees and picking fruit.”

Ogren, who has taught horticulture and landscaping for 20 years, said he started researching allergy-free gardening because his wife suffers from extreme allergies and severe asthma.

“She almost died on me a few times,” he said. “So I wanted to understand all this so that I could set up our own house so that nothing in my yard would do [her] sick.”

Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the United States, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Inflammation caused by allergies to outside triggers like plants affects 5.2 million children and approximately 19.2 million adults. And some research suggests that high levels of tree pollen are associated with visits to asthma-related emergency rooms in cities.

The solution to deadly allergies, according to Ogren, is to plant more female trees to achieve what he sees as “gender balance” in a given area. Using a system he called the “Ogren Plant Allergy Scale”(OPALS), people can use plant rankings from 1 to 10 to organize an allergy-friendly space. USDA has set up OPALS, and Ogren explains how to use the ranking system in his 2015 book, The antiallergic garden.

Lynne Sladky / AP

People walk past restaurants and shops along a tree-lined street in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood.

But the sexist male tree debate started from TikTok to Twitter and got so complicated last month that Taber couldn’t stay silent as she witnessed the botanical sexism discourse pollinating the internet.

Taber therefore began to separate what she called the tangled web of “ideological threads” woven into people’s assumptions about botanical sexism, from toxic masculinity to anti-capitalism.

“They all converge in a way that makes it ring and feel true, like there’s a lot of truth,” she said. “So you have to distinguish what these threads are and say to yourself, ‘Why is this attractive to people? “”

Taber added, “There are huge communities of people who panic and love the idea of ​​nature, but have no idea how it actually works… this is a great example of online influencers mixing and doing match the concepts they’ve heard, floating around, trying to sound smart and appealing to the current zeitgeist.

She posted a viral Twitter thread she titled “Tree Sex Ed” which had amassed over 25,000 likes this week. It is not hatred of the female gender or of the homeless that prompts city planners to favor pollinating trees at times, Taber wrote.

The reason pollen takes over the skies and causes allergies every spring isn’t because “there aren’t enough tree pussies to catch it,” Tabor said in the thread, adding that “botanical sexism” is based on the truth about certain types of trees, but people’s understanding that the theory applies to all types of trees is largely misleading.

William Elmendorf, professor of community and urban forestry at Penn State University, said Ogren’s recommendations are correct as long as dioecious varieties have distinct male and female specimens. But he added that instead of human sex pronouns, historically terms like “podless” or “fruitless” have been used to distinguish dioecious trees that have been bred or propagated for little or no fruit production, including ginkgo trees, Kentucky coffee trees, and grasshoppers.

“I think people should focus on species diversity and not male-female traits,” Elmendorf said, adding that species diversity is most important to him when selecting trees to plant, especially more branched structure, resistance to infectious diseases, and leaf color.

Taber said that it is “very good in environmental stewardship” to plant mainly male dioecious trees in urban settings because the seeds of fruit trees like ginkgo trees have toxins in them that can poison streams when washed down storm drains into water sources. Not to mention the fruits of some female trees which can make city sidewalks slippery, sticky, and dangerous for pedestrians.

Public health is also a factor. The seeds of female ginkgo trees cause symptoms similar to those of food poisoning in humans. City planners choose not to plant certain trees to protect people, not because they want to starve homeless people or those who are food insecure, Taber said.

While Botoman sees “botanical sexism” as a new idea, Taber said people usually tweet him about the theory several times a year. But she’s never seen him gain so much traction during the allergy-free summer season, nor has she publicly released botanical sexism.

In the latter case, she said she dreaded how botanical sexism has gained traction among TikTokers who care deeply about environmental and social justice issues but misunderstand the facts behind the theory.

“If you communicate this information to the public who are not so familiar with plant biology, they won’t know why it’s nonsense,” Taber said. “So it’s the fault of capitalism, and it’s the fault of the patriarchy… it’s kind of blaming things that are already problems for them.”



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