“An art-science ACE project to explore the common allergy hay fever, highlighting pollen’s beauty and malevolence.” 



Willow as visualised by a scanning electron microscope by Susan Brisco


Willow specimen by Susan Brisco


Weeds and grasses are often the first to get the blame for the public’s allergic reactions because  their malevolent pollen being more commonly known about, but what about tree pollen? Trees are referred to as the lungs of the world because they provide us with oxygen, but not only do they release oxygen, trees are also one of the biggest pollen producers.  Tree pollen (and grass pollen) is powdery, light and smooth in form  making wind dispersal easy  and an annoying allergenic presence for hay fever sufferers.   Unfortunately 1 in 4 people will experience hay fever symptoms and trees and grasses are the main culprits!

In the United Kingdom we have a long tree pollen season starting in as early as January all the way to late July. The Alder tree starts producing in January, followed by the  Hazel , Yew and Elm. Birch pollen is released in March, Oak starts in April and the Lime tree starts releasing in June. The project has seen the collections of fresh samples and the subsequent first-hand analysis of pollen  using tools such as a scanning electron microscope.


Lungs, Pencil on Film Still, by Susan Brisco


There are uncanny visual connections between the structure of the tree and the lungs. Did you know that the airways of our lungs are organised in tree-like configurations of rapidly branching tubes? A tree’s branches  bear a striking resemblance to the bronchioles of the lungs. One particular postcard in the SNEEZE postcard series highlighted this to a wide public audience, reflecting not only the physical connection many of us have with tree pollen and the associated allergenic reactions but also the structural similarities between the human body and the natural world. The artwork for this postcard was created by pencil drawing onto a film still.


Alder Tree Pollen – Glass painting Microscope slide cross-section view,   by Susan Brisco


The glass painting  shows an optical view cross-section of a tree-pollen, bringing the invisible world of pollen to life. The Alder has five portals in its pollen wall. This is how a pollen forecaster (palynologist) observes  and counts pollen grains after a staining process.  The outer wall of the tree pollen, as with its fellow grass and weed pollen, is tough and resistant  to ensure survival.

Airborne tree pollen can cause  allergenic symptoms within the human body by  entering the respiratory system and wreaking havoc for sufferers. However, the connections between humans and trees go deeper than when we inhale their pollen; our structure and invisible systems are visually comparable and fascinating. Nature’s hidden worlds are truly remarkable.


You can follow the Sneeze Project on Instagram @thesneezeproject