This column will be setting a record for me, writing about plants three weeks in a row, following the prior two on blazing stars and elderberries.

As opposed to those two, this column is mostly on an unfavorable plant, ragweed.  And it comes from a guy with no green on either thumb, so I guarantee it will probably not happen again.

Over the summer I have become too familiar with ragweed plants growing both in my yard and around Silver Lake. The Silver Lake Friends had gained some ground opening up the lake view last year when we convinced the Park Department to get rid of many of the very tall cup plants that blocked views. But in their place, I suspect more of the ragweed has shown up this year as it is a “pioneering species, filling in gaps,” according to local plant extension expert Dawn Littleton.

I have spent some time pulling ragweed at home and around the lake, something that is quite easy due to their very shallow roots. I only wish I would have stuck with it earlier, especially at Silver Lake. That is because the larger ones are a bit more difficult to pull, and create the added problem of dealing with pulled stems with viable seeds.

Although I read pulling ragweed can cause skin rashes, I didn’t experience that with the dozens I pulled, so next year I hope to get ahead of them and pull them when they’re smaller, and before they flower.  

Blowing in the wind

Ragweeds do not have colorful, showy flowers, in large part because they are wind-pollinated, not insect-pollinated. When the staminate, or male, portion of the plant is ripe with pollen, a single plant may produce a billion pollen grains that can be blown up to a couple hundred miles before settling somewhere, often in nasal passages of humans. Because of that, ragweed is one of the plants most often cited for causing allergy problems in people.

Those who are highly allergic to them suffer from hayfever, also called rhinitis. Close to half of all cases of this very annoying environmental reaction are caused by ragweeds. I noted many of the ragweed plants I looked at closely were in different stages of pollen production, with some already bare of pollen and some just developing it. So, unfortunately, the ragweed hayfever season may last for weeks or even months. Some people also will get food allergies from the interaction of ragweed pollen with other chemicals in the body triggered by eating certain foods.  

I tried to do a bit of sleuthing with people who work on controlling noxious or invasive plant species and found it kind of interesting that ragweed was not on any controlled list I could find.  Even though it is a native plant species, it seems a plant that causes so much human suffering would be targeted.  

Gold standard

Now for the good news about another plant blamed for causing allergies. Goldenrod, even though widely feared as another cause of allergies, is probably not. Unlike ragweed, it is an insect-pollinated plant that does not rely on the release of pollen into the air for wind distribution.  The pollen of goldenrod is much larger and heavier than that of ragweed, so it typically will not travel airborne any significant distance.  

The bright yellow look of goldenrod provides not only added color to the scenery, but is a good source of pollen for bees. Those and other pollinators are finally being recognized for the importance they play, not only for the health of natural habitat, but also for production of foods we consume. So it behooves us to promote them whenever possible, unless undesirable side-effects would warrant otherwise.  

However, although it also can attract butterflies, I have found the common species we predominantly have around here, called Canada goldenrod, does not attract butterflies as much as less common, stiff goldenrod. So anyone trying to attract pollinators should include that species in your plans.

While it is easy to tell goldenrod from ragweed once flowering begins, they can also be told apart pre-flowering by the distinctly lobed leaves of ragweed. So, if you think you might have ragweed growing on your property, make sure it is not goldenrod before you consider pulling it. And if you have a lot of fun doing so, feel free to join me for some ragweed pulling around Silver Lake next year.   

Greg Munson is a volunteer naturalist and freelance writer. If you have questions, comments or column ideas, contact Munson at naturenutgm@gmail.com.

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