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by Stan Tekiela
October 30, 2022
What you see is not always what you think it is. This could be my mantra for nature. At this time of year many people are suffering from fall allergies, often called seasonal allergies. The runny nose, itchy eyes and feeling run down is sometimes too much to take. So naturally, we look around for something to blame for these unpleasant symptoms and we see many bright yellow flowers. But you would be wrong.
At this time of year, the fields, roadsides, and prairies are filled with a beautiful and showy yellow flower so it’s natural that we look around and seeing this obvious blooming plant and we blame our seasonal allergies on it. So, what is this plant? They are the Goldenrods. There are many species of Goldenrod in the Genus (Solidago sp). Over 75 different species of Goldenrod are found in the U.S. and here in the northern states, we have about a dozen species that can be found in just about any open field blooming at the end of summer.
However, your seasonal allergies are caused by Ragweed (Ambrosia sp) not the Goldenrod. Several species of Ragweed are common throughout the U.S.. Upwards of half of all cases of pollen related allergic reactions in North America are cause by one of the species of Ragweed and they don’t have bright yellow flowers.
Now here is the important part to understand. A simple concept that escapes most people. Flowers on plants are meant for only one thing —reproduction. Flowers are not for you and me they are for the insects. Brightly colored flowers do only one thing, attract insects. Insects that are large enough to carry pollen on their bodies such as beetles and bees from flower to flower. Plants with large and brightly colored flowers, such as the Goldenrods contain pollen so large that the pollen can’t be airborne, and they depend upon insects to move their pollen around.
Another way of looking at this is, plants such as the Goldenrod are dependent upon insects. This is why pollinators are so important and why you see the subject of pollinators popping up across the media these days. Without the insects, the plants wouldn’t be pollinated, and no new seeds would be produced each year.
Plants like Ragweed have small green flowers. In fact, their flowers are so inconspicuous that you don’t even notice them at all. One of the more common Ragweed plants is the Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida). It is very common and found all over the United States. This plant can grow over six feet tall and produces many flower clusters on each plant that are three to four inches tall. But the flowers are green and tiny so unless you go looking for them you won’t see the Ragweed.
The pollen of Ragweed is so small and lightweight that it easily becomes airborne. In fact, the way that Ragweed is pollenated is by the wind, not insects. They don’t need or require insects to move their pollen from flower to flower. Since being wind pollenated isn’t a very exact or accurate way of completing the pollination process, the plants produce an excess of pollen grains since most won’t reach their intended target. It is estimated that one Ragweed plant can produce over a billion pollen grains. Now multiply that by the number of Ragweed plants in any given area and you can see why Ragweed is a problem for many people.
The airborne pollen floats around on the wind and is breathed in by people. And since it is so small it interacts with the receptors in our noses. Our immune system mistakes Ragweed pollen as something toxic and dangerous to our bodies so our immune system kicks into overdrive and produces an abundance of chemicals to fight off the pollen, even though the pollen is harmless. Because of this overreaction by our bodies, we get symptoms such as sneezing, running nose, itchy eyes, and congestion.
So once again what we see in nature and what we associate it with are often incorrect. Only through investigation and education does the truth come to us. I hope everyone with seasonal allergies has a good season and please stop pointing at the Goldenrods and blaming them for your suffering. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on Instagram.com, facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at naturesmart.com
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
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