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Garden Talk: Allergies gone wild –what’s blowin’ in the wind? By Sallie Lee

Young woman sneezing into tissue.








Question:  My allergies, which normally give me a fit in spring and again to a lesser degree in the fall, seem to have started earlier this year and are driving me crazy!

What is with this allergy season?  I’m not imagining miserable itching watery eyes, runny nose, scratchy throat.  But for late August, this is weird! Is it that Goldenrod plant that seems to grow everywhere?  I’ve heard that’s the culprit in which case my weedeater is going to be wearing out every one of these plants that grow wild on my property.  Is there anything else I can do to get rid of the “guilty” plants?

Answer:  OK, for those who moved to Alabama during the last year or for those who have issues remembering, the word is Ragweed. Botanically known as Ambrosia spp, which sounds like a misnomer if ever there was one, this member of the Aster family becomes a topic of intense negativity about this time of year. Actually in most cases it’s a totally different  plant, Goldenrod (Solidago spp) that gets the bad rap and unfortunate eradication by misinformed homeowners and gardeners.

Why the disconnect and misdirected frustration?  Both Ragweed and Goldenrod bloom this time of year, from mid-August until “late fall.”  In addition to timing, they often grow in the same general conditions; full sun and average to slightly dry soil conditions.  The major difference between the two is that those pretty, yellow goldenrod flowers are insect pollinated while ragweed is wind pollinated.  That means to all allergy sufferers that while goldenrod pollen is heavy and sticky, just right for honeybee pollination, ragweed is wind pollinated. Considering that a single ragweed plant can produce 1 billion (yes, that many) grains of pollen per season, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “the answer IS blowin’ in the wind.” Medical data indicates ragweed causes about 50% of all allergies blamed on pollen in North America.

This year has produced abundant flowers due in part to sufficient rainfall through most of our spring and summer.  Healthy plants produce more flowers, a boon in most gardens. But with ragweed, more flowers equal more pollen and so on, the “benefits” of which we’re currently reaping.

Other than waging war on stands of ragweed (see photos), we can take action to ameliorate ragweed’s impact on our health. Pollen counts are usually highest in the morning until about 10:00 am, so limiting outside activities during those hours can help. Conditions for enjoying the outdoors will be best right after a heavy rainfall. If you must be outdoors during heavy pollen outbursts, a facemask will help reduce exposure to pollen.

Goldenrod is a more noticeable plant so we tend to blame what is readily visible.  Goldenrod’s yellow flowers hold a nectar source that is attractive to bees including the “honey” kind and butterflies, often considered the last strong nectar source of the season for them.

Goldenrod has a fascinating history involving Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and George Washington Carver, but that’s an article for another time.

If you’re not sure which one is growing in your yard, and it could be both, contact your county Extension office for help in determining whether or not you need to take action.


Garden Talk is written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. This column includes research based information from land-grant universities around the country, including Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities. Email questions to Sallie at leesall@auburn.edu or call 205-879-6964 x11.  The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Alabama A&M University and Auburn University), is an equal opportunity educator and employer.  Everyone is welcome!