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Fall allergies: Goldenrod takes blame but ragweed is culprit

Thursday, September 6, 2018

By Eileen W. Novotny

Master gardener volunteer 2018 Intern

Fall is in the air. Achoo!

Growing up on a farm in Northeast Ohio (in the ancient times – before air conditioning and antihistamines), I remember September being the season of lying on the couch and suffering from hay fever.

Among the glorious colors of autumn are all those pollen-laden, allergy-causing weeds. You know the ones I mean, the vibrant purples, golds, yellows that wave from the side of the road as we speed along our way. The crowning glory of the display and the showiest for our eyes is goldenrod.

Now I find out that I have to stop blaming goldenrod for those fall allergy miseries – the coughing, sneezing, itchy eyes and clogged up sinuses. The culprit is really ragweed.

Goldenrod gets the blame because its bright yellow blooms are hard to miss, and ragweed’s less conspicuous green flowers are easy to overlook even if the plant can grow to over 6 feet tall. These two native plants bloom at the same time during the late summer and early fall, and both grow along ditches, abandoned fields, highways and byways.

Goldenrod (Solidago) is a perennial herb whose flower pigments have been used to dye yarn, and it was valued by Native Americans for medicinal purposes. The Latin Solidago means “to make whole or heal” based on the reported medicinal qualities of the plant.

Ragweed (Ambrosia) is as it is named, a lowly weed. Both support native wildlife by providing food and cover, and the number of pollinators attracted to goldenrod is amazing. Ragweed seeds and leaves were used by Native Americans to produce oil, which provided fat, which was deficient in their diets. How things change.

So what makes for the difference in causing our fall allergy miseries? Goldenrod produces far less pollen than ragweed. The pollen of goldenrod is large, heavy and sticky, which allows it to adhere to the body of insects for pollination. Since it is heavy, it does not get carried very far in the wind.

Ragweed pollen is small and prolific. It travels hundreds of miles on the wind. Yes, it has been tracked more than 400 miles away. Even if it isn’t growing in your neighborhood, it is still in the air. A ragweed plant can produce up to one million grains of pollen a day, and one billion during its life. It is the second-leading cause of allergies behind mold.

This fall, feel free to enjoy goldenrod in a bouquet to celebrate the fall season. Enjoy that air conditioning and the medical advances that give us methods of coping with those fall allergies.

To cut down on fall allergies wait until evening to work outside, wear a hat, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt that you take off as soon as you come inside and put it in the wash. Take a shower and wash your hair to remove any pollen you may have collected on your outdoor adventure – and wipe down the fur and paws of your pets who have kept you company outdoors.

To learn more about allergies in the garden, go to: