Weeds are not what they seem

With a name like Ambrosia, you would think this plant would be sweet smelling, lovely to look at and a delight to have in the garden, but common ragweed is instead an irritating allergen and widespread weed.

Ragweed, or Ambrosia artemisiifolia, is an annual, broadleaf weed and produces huge amounts of pollen that when inhaled by those who are sensitive to this plant, can make a person miserable. Not only that, but it’s found everywhere, in fields, along the roadway, in our gardens and even manages to find its way into our lawns.

We recognize it by the deeply indented leaves and tight spikes of bright yellow, male flowers growing on tall stems that can be two to four feet tall. The female flowers, which also inhabit the same plant as the male flowers, are small, green and inconspicuous. Because this plant is an annual, it grows each year from the multitudes of seeds each flower produces. Seeds can live in the soil for nearly 39 years until conditions are right for germinating, and that is not a typo. This plant is persistent to survive.

This time of year, we are seeing the flowers that will soon be sending pollen through the air. Those who are sensitive to ragweed pollen suffer with sneezing, runny or stuffy nose and and itchy throat. Just when you think it’s time to put away the antihistamines for the season, ragweed proves us wrong.

The plant is a member of the daisy family, although why its from the Genus Ambrosia is something I don’t understand. Ambrosia is translated as ”food of the gods,” something ragweed is not. It has a bitter taste and when eaten by livestock, causes nausea and sore mouths. Fortunately, they don’t like the taste either so it isn’t often eaten.

This doesn’t mean that the yellow plumes we are seeing now in fields and alongside highways are ragweed. Poor, innocent Goldenrod is often mistaken for ragweed because they both have yellow flowers, they both bloom around the same time and they both grow alongside roads and in ditches.

Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis, is only distantly related to ragweed. They come from the same plant family, but it ends there. With more than 50 species of goldenrod and more being cultivated all the time, this wildflower is beginning to find its way into the home garden as an ornamental plant that provides color at the end of the season when most other garden flowers are beginning to tire out.

Unlike ragweed, pollen produced from goldenrod flowers is heavy and sticky and doesn’t float about in the air. Instead insects are important for pollination. That doesn’t mean it can’t cause allergic reactions in some people who are sensitive, but that comes from handling the plant rather than inhaling the pollen from the air.

It has only been recently that goldenrod has been accepted in the United States as a cultivated garden plant, although it has been used in Europe for quite a while. Species of goldenrod are often used in floral arrangements and not only are the leaves edible, but they are an excellent food source for many insects, butterflies and bees, that feed on the nectar.