Ragweed vs. Goldenrod: A Case of Mistaken Identities
Ragweed and goldenrod are similarly sized, grow in the same regions, and bloom come back-to-school time. But that’s where the resemblance ends—and knowing the difference between these two plants is essential for seasonal allergy sufferers.
Allergic rhinitis, aka hay fever, is a condition that can really hinder your enjoyment of outdoor activities. Characterized by sneezing, sniffling, congestion, red and itchy eyes, and just feeling low-key miserable most of the time, allergic rhinitis affects some 25 million Americans each year.
The culprit is pollen, a byproduct of plants’ reproductive systems that can cause an adverse immune response in some people. Because it’s an airborne particulate, pollen can be difficult to avoid—unless you want to sequester yourself in air-conditioned environments for an entire season.
Two varieties of the Asteraceae family, goldenrod and ragweed, bear much of the blame for an allergy sufferer’s annual sneezefest. Is that fair? Are these two plants really responsible for allergic rhinitis? Keep reading to learn all about ragweed vs. goldenrod.
The relationship between plants, pollen, and people
A lot of people associate allergies with springtime, and with good reason. It’s in spring that trees and grasses begin to bloom and release pollen. If you have ever parked your car under an oak or elm tree in the spring and left it there overnight, there’s a good chance that upon your return you found a dusting of chartreuse powder on the car’s hood, roof, and windshield. That’s pollen.
Some people, however, aren’t affected by tree or grass pollen. Their immune systems might play it cool in the spring, only to act up come August and into the fall. That’s when the air fills with pollen from plants like nettle, mugwort, plantain, and sorrel.
Ragweed, an annual plant that’s considered an invasive species, blooms between July and October. So does goldenrod, although it’s a noninvasive perennial plant that gardeners often grow on purpose for its medicinal and aesthetic benefits.
Goldenrod has big yellow flowers and relies on living creatures for pollination.
Some plants are pollinated by animals, but most flora, including grass, conifers, and edible grains like corn, rye, and wheat, are pollinated by the wind. Goldenrod belongs to the former variety. Planting goldenrod species is an effective way to attract pollinators to a garden. You might even say that this flower brings all the bees to the backyard.
An individual goldenrod plant can grow up to 3 or 4 feet high. They have long, tapered leaves, but they are usually—and easily—identified by their thickly clustered, vivid yellow flowers. Goldenrod’s blooms are relatively large, especially when compared to those of ragweed.
Ragweed has small green blooms and is pollinated by the wind.
When you put the two plants side by side, ragweed doesn’t really look that much like goldenrod. The plants are shorter and have fern-like leaflets measuring 6 inches by 4 inches. Instead of goldenrod’s characteristic yellow flowers, ragweed has smaller, stingy, decidedly green blooms that can be difficult to see, especially from a distance.
One reason that ragweed allergies are so pervasive is that the wind can disperse the pollen over an impressive distance. Ragweed pollen has been detected up to 2 miles above sea level, and 400 miles out to sea.
Ragweed season generally peaks in mid-September, but anyone who’s allergic to it knows that its effects don’t truly end until the season’s first hard frost.
Ragweed triggers allergies; in most cases, goldenrod doesn’t.
Although goldenrod can’t entirely be ruled out as an allergen, it’s highly unlikely to be the source of seasonal sniffles and sneezes. That’s because it’s pollinated by bees and butterflies; its large particles of pollen rarely become airborne at all, let alone travel any distance from the plant.
Not only is goldenrod innocent when it comes to allergies, but it offers many health benefits. Its Latin name, Solidago, actually means “to heal” or “to make whole.” Some parts of the plant are edible, but goldenrod is most often made into a tea, tincture, or other herbal remedy. It has been used to treat inflammation, arthritis, wounds and skin issues, diabetes, and even tuberculosis.
So it’s ragweed that deserves our aversion. Some 15 to 20 percent of us are sensitive to its pollen. Additionally, it can exacerbate conditions such as asthma and eczema.
There are ways to minimize pollen’s power.
How can you cope if you’re among the 1 in 5 Americans who are sidelined by seasonal allergies? Of course, over-the-counter and prescription medicines can quell symptoms, but reducing your exposure to pollen should be the first order of business.
Start by checking the pollen count for your area. Avoid going out of doors altogether, if possible, when it’s unusually high. Some other proactive steps to take include:
- Keep house and car windows closed to prevent pollen from entering your space.
- Pollen levels peak between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so stay indoors during that period.
- If you have air conditioning, use it. HEPA filters in both central systems and individual AC units can filter out some 99 percent of pollen and other contaminants.
- Remove your shoes and leave them in the entryway or foyer. Ask guests to do the same.
- Remove outer layers of clothing upon entering the home and launder all clothing that’s been exposed to pollen as soon as you can.
- Take a shower to remove pollen particulates from your skin and hair after being outside.
If your seasonal allergies are severe, consider visiting an allergy clinic to determine if you’re a good candidate for immunotherapy. There are also plenty of natural remedies to try—including, ironically enough, some that incorporate goldenrod!