The real Grinch this holiday season in Central Texas could be cedar fever

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The joys of the holiday season can take a back seat to cedar fever if you did not plan ahead for the annual release of pollen now airborne in Central Texas.

Many area residents suffer through cold-type symptoms or worse off-and-on from December through February.

“Many new Texans are finding Christmas on their backs,” said Jim Rooni, head of Central Texas Operations for the Texas A&M Forest Service. “It’s the Ashe juniper, or juniperus ashei, and it’s debilitating.”

Rooni said there are plenty of misconceptions about the tree, including that it is a cedar tree. It is a drought-tolerant evergreen that has spread because of development in the Edwards Plateau, which includes the Hill Country.

According to Rooni, the female trees have berries and cones, while the male trees cause the airborne mess with pollen. The trees are not an invasive species.

“They are native trees in this region,” Rooni said. “We have 10 million acres of them in central and west Texas.”

Rooni said fires—controlled burns by ranchers and wildfires—reset the onslaught of Ashe junipers taking over the landscape. Development has cut down on the ability to conduct controlled burns. Rooni said a large expense for ranchers is managing the nuisance species, and while homeowners can trim them back, they are in a losing battle to rid the area of the Ashe juniper trees.

Health issues for many

As juniper counts rise, TV meteorologists including KTBC Fox 7 Austin’s Scott Fisher report the numbers on each newscast on the website. On Monday morning, the count was in the “very high” category according to the station’s website.

“It has been a super wet fall and absolutely everything points to a rough season,” Fisher said, admitting he has awful allergies, but the Ashe juniper isn’t one of them.

Fisher said as with most things weather related, he’ll take some blame for cedar fever, too.

“If it’s cold outside or the water is slow in the Comal River, I take heat for it. But I can take it. I can sympathize with people and their allergies. It’s not fun.”

Those new to Texas may not experience this round of cedar fever, according to medical professionals.

“The first year here is usually a honeymoon,” said Rhiannon Ringo, an allergy and immunology physician assistant at Baylor Scott & White in Round Rock. “After that, a lot of people suffer the symptoms of cedar fever, which can lead to other infections.”

For those sensitive to pollen, Ringo suggested planning indoor activities on windy days, when pollen travels up to 100 miles. She said there are several over-the-counter antihistamines and medications available that can help combat the symptoms. She also said saline nasal sprays and drops are typically helpful.

“It’s hard to work back from not feeling well,” Ringo said. “And it’s hard to tell if it’s an allergy or if you’re getting sick.”

After the first bout, Ringo suggests setting an appointment with a board-certified allergist to figure out the best line of attack going forward.

“Whether it is medicine or teaching your immune system not to respond through therapy, a doctor will help find what is right for the patient,” Ringo said. “It’s hard for your body to deal with multiple issues at the same time, but we have to go outside at some point.”

 

Not all bad

While the Ashe juniper may wreak havoc on our immune system, many receive help they need through their doctor, while others build a tolerance.

Rooni, who came to Texas 25 years ago from Wisconsin, said as a forester he does not have the option of staying indoors. He said his system has adjusted and the effects of cedar fever are minimal. Rooni also said the juniper has some positive effects on the ecosystem.

“Birds and critters have used it successfully for habitat,” Rooni said. “It’s also good protecting against erosion in this area. The one issue we have is when there are thick canopies, they actually keep water from ever reaching the soil. They take only so much water and then it evaporates without ever reaching the ground.”

Just another knock against the indigenous fiend.

A website often pointed to online, www.pollen.com, listed Austin as fourth worst in the United States for several days in early December. The top 5 were all Texas cities, with the top culprit being the Ashe juniper.

“It’s a much-maligned species for several reasons,” Rooni said. “And it’s here to stay. People need to drop the chainsaw and alleviate the symptoms.”

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Joe Warner
Joe Warner is managing editor of the nine Austin-Central Texas editions of Community Impact Newspaper. He previously served as senior editor of the flagship Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto newspaper. He came to Central Texas from Metro Detroit, where he was editor and general manager of several daily and weekly publications. He is the former president of the Michigan Press Association and was on the MPA board of directors for nine years.
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