What’s ACTUALLY Making You Sneezy This Fall?

For many of us, the start of the school year marks the start of fall seasonal allergies and… and… ACHOO!!!! (Excuse me…) our eyes, noses, and throats can suffer as we enjoy the great outdoors, but what is it that’s making us so sneezy?

Unfortunately for this amazing plant, the blame usually is directed at the highly suspicious yellow flower that blooms right around the start of September and continues to bloom well into late fall: Goldenrod! We know that our seasonal allergies come from pollen, and nothing looks more covered in pollen than this vibrant yellow flower that the bees love to hang out on. However, what we aren’t aware of is that there is another, much sneakier culprit!

Ragweed is typically the primary cause of seasonal allergies that start this time of year. While there are many causes to seasonal allergies, including mold growth on fallen leaves, Ragweed pollen dispersion is definitely a huge source of our sniffles, without many of us event knowing it!

Ragweed often goes unnoticed, mainly due to the fact that even though it is also blooming at the same time, the flowers are very inconspicuous and the pollen grains are virtually unnoticeable. How could that be impacting us so much?!?! Well, flowers are uniquely adapted to their methods of pollination. In bright, happy, and colorful flowers, they are colorful for a reason. These flowers are primarily insect or bird pollinated and need to capture the attention of these creatures. Then, for creatures like bumblebees, the pollen grains need to be able to stick to the hairs on the body and legs in order to be moved from one flower to the next. Yellow is one of the bumblebees favorite colors and acts as leading lines or bright flags shouting “come and eat here!” to various pollinators. For inconspicuous flowers, such as the flowers for Ragweed, the pollen grains are small and don’t attract pollinators because they aren’t specially adapted to have larger creatures moving the pollen from one flower to the next. They are specially suited to be dispersed through the wind! As the wind blows the tiny pollen grains around the air, they land on the large stalks of Ragweed flowers in the surrounding area to help pollinate each other. While the pollen is blowing around in the wind, they also find their way up our noses and into our sinuses!

While you might not want to go around planting Ragweed, not just because they don’t really add color to the fall landscape, but because you also might be allergic to them, I do highly recommend that if there is one flower you will plant this year, that you plant Goldenrod!

This goldenrod stem has become a home for overwintering insects.

Goldenrod is such an important plant in your local landscape. They are natives to the entire eastern portion of North America – from the Great Plains all the way to the coastline! Not only do they have a wide native range, so they are great for many people to plant, but there are also so many species that are adapted to mountains, plains, marshes, and roadsides! Their blooms happen just in time for the end of the larger summer blooms, and their blooms can last for months! This provides important end of season food for numerous pollinators. In fact, 120+ native insect pollinators, including butterflies, moths, bees, wasps and others rely on this plant, as well as numerous native bird species. Without goldenrod, these creatures wouldn’t have enough energy to fuel migrations or be able to make it through the long winter!

Goldenrod stalks also provide habitat for overwintering insects and larvae. Several types of wasps will lay their eggs on goldenrod and create something called a gall. Galls are usually swollen portions of plants that have reacted to the laying of eggs. Often, a wasp will lay their egg inside the stem of a plant, and the hormones released encourage the plant to grow and swell, creating a “nursery” for the new baby when it hatches! On goldenrod plants, this can be seen as large spherical swelling in the middle of the stem, or as a bunch gall, where sudden, mutated leaf growth protects the larva.

Trying to figure out if what you have growing in your community is goldenrod or ragweed? Let’s take a look at some identifying traits:

Ragweed (Allergen – below swipe left to right)Goldenrod (Not an Allergen – below swipe right to left)
No conspicuous flowersBright yellow flowers
Tall spikes of flowers (looks like a candelabra)Flowers growing in spiked clusters that are usually
wider at the base and taper at the top.
Lobed, fern-like Leaves with petioleLinear Leaves that lack a petiole
Typically < 1′, but can grow up to 6′ tall.Typically 3-4′, but can grow up to 6′ tall.
Not covered in bees and butterfliesProbably covered in bees and butterflies

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