Don’t blame the goldenrod.
The sneezing, itching and irritated eyes and nose are not caused by the fabulous yellow blooms that are shining golden across the landscape. Showy goldenrod may be obvious, but it is not guilty.
Small and inconspicuous describes the villainous allergen that might be making your time outside unpleasant. And its name is ragweed.
There is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
No matter where you roam, you cannot outrun or outsmart ragweed. No town, state or region in this country is without ragweed. This is very bad news for the 10 to 30 per cent of Americans who suffer from ragweed allergies, or hay fever. So is the fact that these sneezing sufferers may also have to avoid cantaloupe, honeydew, bananas and watermelon, since those with hay fever are often more sensitive to allergies to these fruits and have a strengthened reaction to them during ragweed pollen season. Fifteen million people suffering from these allergies can’t be wrong in their repulsion to ragweed.
The two types of ragweed most often associated with the worst allergies are the two varieties that we see on the Vineyard, common and western ragweed.
Common ragweed is more often found in our landscape. It is known also by the aliases bitterweed, bloodweed, hogweed and wormseed. Most interesting, perhaps, is its scientific name, Ambrosia artemisiifolia, which begs for an explanation.
Ambrosia, we all know, is the food of the gods. Though there is no evidence of people eating this weed as foodstuff, perhaps the nomenclature is derived from its tenacity, which might have been thought to confer the immortality of the gods. Or, maybe, as herbalist Gerard observed, its “fragrant smell hath moved the poets to suppose that this herbe was meate and food for the gods.”
It wouldn’t be incorrect to note that the pollen from this plant ends up in your mouth and nose, though not through intentional ingestion. Another herbalist, Manasseh Cutler, knew that it could be part of a recipe for disaster. He insisted that “When it abounds amongst rye and barley, the seeds are thrashed out with the grain, and will give bread, made of it, a bitter and disagreeable taste.”
Each ragweed plant lives one season and can produce up to one billion grams of pollen during that season. The pollen is especially potent, since only ten pollen grains per cubic meter can cause an allergic reaction. Its windborne ways carry it great distances: ragweed pollen has been known to travel 400 miles out to sea and two miles up into the atmosphere. It can remain airborne for days on end to cover those distances; a true rags-to-reaches story!
And worst of all, it is getting even worse. Climate change, which is bringing increased temperatures and carbon dioxide levels, is lengthening the ragweed season. An extra week or so of hay fever is the result, and the afflicted are not happy.
With all these factors on its side, ragweed’s future success is definitely not up in the air, even if its pollen is. Those that bear the brunt of its potent power know that it is nothing to sneeze at.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.