Sandy’s Garden .. Rapeseed Fever

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Lest you are wondering, gentle reader, no, I do not grow rapeseed in my garden.

Despite the attractiveness of the brilliant yellow flowers which are coming into bloom right now. No, I leave these crop plants strictly to the farmers, who grow many acres of the plants within a radius of five square miles of my home. There is no mistaking a field of rapeseed, or oilseed rape as it is often known, its glowing golden flowers carried on stems about a metre high … a little over three feet in old money … gently waving in a soft April breeze. Rapeseed has been cultivated for at least ten thousand years and is reckoned to be among the first plants grown by mankind as we switched from being hunter-gatherers … hunting and gathering food as we could find, catch or collect it … to being farmers, people who kept animals and grew food crops to be harvested to ensure greater certainty and convenience in supply.

However, it is in much more recent years that rapeseed production has literally rocketed, something of the order of fourteen times as much being grown today as was grown in the 1960s; yes, that’s right, fourteen times as much – a staggering seventy million tonnes of rapeseed having been grown worldwide in 2016! And, of course, there are good reasons for this. Rapeseed is grown to be processed into vegetable oils and, in recent years, biodiesel; and the unwanted plant material left over after these processes have been completed is used as animal feed. So it’s a good example of ‘waste not, want not’ for there is very little left over as unwanted waste. We eat edible oil from its seed; we use inedible oil from the same seed to generate power; and we feed what we don’t want for ourselves to the farm animals which form part of our food chain. What’s not to like about rapeseed?

Well, we have entered the months when broadcast weather forecasts often include a guide to the pollen levels expected to be present in the air, for we have entered what we usually call the hay fever season, a time of varying degrees of misery for hay fever sufferers and actual health danger to asthmatics. And, despite its name ‘hay fever’ … given to the condition when it was thought that the smell of new-mown grass was the cause … many authorities, although not all, accept that rapeseed pollen has a significant part to play in inducing stuffy noses, sneezing, red, itchy and watery eyes, swelling around the eyes and itchy ears. The condition is properly called allergic rhinitis and usually starts in people between the ages of twenty and forty. It can be triggered by pollen from many different plants and grasses and enjoys a long season, for different plants release their pollen into the atmosphere at different times during the summer months. Typically, victims react within a matter of minutes of being exposed to whatever triggers their allergic response; and I am one who believes that the pollen from rapeseed triggers the reaction in some sufferers, based largely on my own personal experience in past years. This is actually at variance with what we might expect, because rapeseed is an insect-pollinated crop and most pollen-induced hay fever is triggered by wind-pollinated plants; the former want insects to come and collect their pollen, whereas the latter release it into the air, with obvious consequences for hay fever sufferers. However, we do know that, although rapeseed relies primarily on insects … particularly honeybees … to distribute its pollen, some of it is released into the air. And I blame Brassica napus … rapeseed … for the onset of my allergenic rhinitis, or hay fever.

If you are a hay fever victim, try to find some comfort in the fact that you are not alone; between 10% and 30% of the inhabitants of Western Europe are thought to suffer from allergenic rhinitis in any given year; and that’s lot of wheezing and sneezing!