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It Was Supposed To Be A Benign TikTok On “Botanical Sexism,” But Then It Spiraled Into A Huge Social Media Debate

Do cities really favor male trees over their female counterparts? Why? And what are the implications? As TikToker Ellie Botoman found out, everyone has an opinion.

Posted on August 27, 2021, at 5:20 p.m. ET

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images (2)

Ellie Botoman did not expect to start a messy internet fight about 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 TikTok video.

“When you realize allergies/asthma across North America got worse [because] landscapers and city planners thought male trees were easier to maintain,” her TikTok caption states. “And they planted so many male trees, those species now release tons of pollen each year to compete for a few females. This lack of biodiversity and climate change fueling longer and earlier pollen seasons has caused allergies and asthma rates to accelerate. So you’re sneezing and congested all day because of botanical sexism.”

Botoman’s TikTok has been viewed 2.9 million times and generated nearly 4,000 comments.

Botoman, a writer who works in public relations and has a love for science fiction, told BuzzFeed News she never imagined the TikTok would spark an online debate over whether urban landscaping is in fact sexist and that capitalism has caused allergies and deprived unhoused people of food — but it did.

“City planners who are mostly male decided that female trees are too messy. And so they planted overwhelmingly male trees that release pollen, but not enough female trees to absorb the pollen so we have more pollen floating around in the air than ever, which leads to increased allergies,” TikToker @jaimalenehough0 said in her post on July 10, three days after Botoman’s post. “But what everyone somehow forgets to add is that the reason female trees are messy is because they produce fruit. And I high-key believe that botanical sexism is driven by capitalism and making sure that people who live in urban areas don't have access to fresh fruits and vegetables that are provided by corporations.”

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

“I knew capitalism makes money off your allergies,” one TikToker @DANNIE commented on @jaimalenehough0’s video.

In another response to the same video, TikToker @petitedeath wrote, “ok but have you had to manage a fruit tree? if we had fruiting trees down street ways it would be flooded with rodents and quickly be a safety hazard.”

“We are taught from a young age that nature is something that we’re supposed to consume, so people just made this assumption that botanical sexism is a product of capitalism, which I think is touching on this debate about how we as a society use our spaces and treat our land,” Botoman said in response to TikTokers’ comments on her own video.

Botoman said she initially learned of “botanical sexism” after reading an article in Scientific American by Tom Ogren, a horticulturist and allergy researcher who coined the phrase. The article cites the 1949 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, which reads, “When used for street plantings, only male trees should be selected, to avoid the nuisance from the cottony seed.”

Importantly, that USDA passage is in specific reference to cottonwoods, a tree that is dioecious, meaning it has male and female parts on different, distinct trees, said Sarah Taber, who identifies herself as a farm and food systems strategist. The passage goes on to say female cottonwoods are dangerous for street planting because they clog sewers and drain pipes. Taber added that interpreting the yearbook’s passage to imply the “USDA recommends using males” for all urban planning is an “intentional misreading” of the agency’s advice.

Beth J. Harpaz / AP

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

But Ogren maintained that his theory only concerns dioecious trees, and he doesn’t really mind other kinds that don’t have separate male and female trees.

“Female trees produce no pollen, but they trap and remove large amounts of pollen from the air, and turn it into seed,” Ogren writes in the Scientific American article, titled “Botanical Sexism Cultivates Home-Grown Allergies,” that inspired Botoman’s TikTok. “Female trees (and female shrubs also) are not just passive, but are active allergy-fighting trees. The more female plants 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 that if you have a female plant, you have an allergy-free plant,” Ogren told BuzzFeed News. “Why? Because it produces no pollen.”

Ogren, 74, is not on TikTok, but he heard of Botoman’s post and said she cited his research accurately. He said he was surprised that his theory went viral but was glad to see conversations about botanical sexism happening among younger TikTokers, especially because he’s been passionate about trees since childhood.

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

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

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

Allergies are the sixth-leading cause of chronic illness in the US, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Inflammation caused by allergies to outdoor triggers like plants affects 5.2 million children and about 19.2 million adults. And some research suggests that high tree pollen counts are associated with asthma-related emergency room visits in cities.

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

Lynne Sladky / AP

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

But the debate over sexist male trees launched from TikTok to Twitter and got so messy last month that Taber could not stand by silently as she witnessed the botanical sexism discourse pollinate the internet.

So Taber started pulling apart 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 just converge in a way that makes it sound and feel true, like it's got a lot of truthiness to it,” she said. “So you gotta pick apart what those threads are and be like, ‘Why is this appealing to people?’”

Taber added: “There are huge communities of people who are freaking out and love the idea of nature, but haven’t a single fucking clue how it actually works … this is a great example of online influencers mixing and matching concepts they’ve heard floating around, to try and sound smart and appeal to the current zeitgeist.”

She posted a viral Twitter thread she titled “Tree Sex Ed” that had amassed over 25,000 likes as of this week. It’s not the hatred of the female gender or those who are experiencing homelessness that drives urban planners to sometimes favor pollinating trees, Taber wrote.

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

William Elmendorf, a professor who specializes in community and urban forestry at Penn State University, said Ogren’s recommendations are correct in that 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 selected, or propagated, for limited or no fruit production, including ginkgos, Kentucky coffee trees, and locusts.

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

Taber said it’s “really good environmental stewardship” to plant mainly male dioecious trees in urban settings because seeds of fruiting trees like ginkgos have toxins in them that can poison waterways when they’re washed down storm drains into water sources. Not to mention the fruit of some female trees can make city sidewalks slippery, sticky, and dangerous for pedestrians.

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

While Botoman considers “botanical sexism” to be a new idea, Taber said people typically DM her on Twitter about the theory a few times a year. But she’s never seen it gain so much traction in the off-allergy summer season, nor has she publicly posted about botanical sexism.

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

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

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.