Thursday, August 10, 2023

The Golden Rule

Goldenrod and New England Aster – David D Taylor US Forest ServiceUnless you have bees up your nose on a regular basis, don’t blame late-season allergies on goldenrod. However, if you do find bees in your schnozz, seek medical (and perhaps entomological) help immediately.

While most plants respond to the shrinking hours of daylight in the late summer by starting to wind down their business for the season, goldenrod is a “short-day” plant, the type that is stimulated to bloom by dwindling light. It is a perennial in the aster family, and is widespread across North America. Continent-wide, we have something on the order of 130 species of goldenrod in the genus Solidago.

As one of the most abundant blooms of late summer and autumn, this native wildflower is for many pollinators, including numerous bee species, a vital source of nectar and nutritious pollen. Unfortunately, this latter item has given goldenrod a black eye (but not a black-eyed Susan) among allergy sufferers.
Goldenrod’s showy yellow flowers are in full view along roadsides and in meadows and pastures at about the same time one of the more intense waves of seasonal hay fever typically begins.
So it’s understandable that goldenrod has been blamed for the red itchy eyes, sinus congestion, sneezing, and general histamine-soaked misery that many folks experience this time of year. But it turns out that goldenrod pollen is innocent of all charges. Goldenrod can’t be guilty because its pollen is heavy. That’s a relative term, I suppose, since it’s light enough that bees manage to cart away loads of it. But in the pollen realm it weighs a ton, and thus cannot blow far from the plant. It isn’t that goldenrod pollen is incapable of eliciting an allergic response; it’s just that to do so, something – a bee, for instance – would have to deliver it to your nasal passages.

So who is to blame for the spike in late summer allergies?
The culprit is goldenrod’s evil cousin, ragweed, which does not behave at all like its golden relative (I suspect that everyone has a family member or two like ragweed among their kin). Ragweed, which is also a native plant in the family Asteraceae, churns out loads of super-light pollen, quite the opposite
of what goldenrod does.
Ragweed pollen is so light that it can remain airborne for several days. In fact, large quantities have been found in the air as far as 650 kilometres out to sea. And a single ragweed plant can produce a billion pollen grains to fly on the breeze and make you sneeze. Yep, ragweed pollen is the stuff that stuffs you up. One reason we fail to suspect ragweed for inflaming our nasal mucosa is that its blossoms look nothing like proper flowers. They are a dull, drab green, the same colour as the plant. It’s as if ragweed is purposely trying to avoid attention, staying under the radar to let snazzy goldenrod take the rap.

Ragweed is easy to overlook because it’s wind-pollinated, and therefore has no need to advertise with bright colours and sweet nectar to attract pollinators. Insect-pollinated plants have to entice bees, butterflies and other couriers with flashy colours and tasty sweets. Wind-pollinated plants have discovered it’s much easier to attract the wind than bugs. The downside is that they need to make tons more pollen.
Most ragweed species – there are about 50 of them – are annual, but they come back each spring from the copious seeds produced each fall. Ragweed will continue to churn out allergens until the first hard frost, so let’s hope we don’t have an exceptionally long season this year.

Please help spread the word that goldenrod rules, and spare it further accusations.

Paul Hetzler writes about nature for The Saturday Evening Post.
He’s usually careful not to inhale bees.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

7 Responses

  1. Roger Kessel says:

    Thanks for your posts to the ADK Almanac—very informative with a lively lilt.

  2. Bob Meyer says:

    As Roger above says along with a very enjoyable often humorous writing style.

  3. Boreas says:

    While easy on the sinuses, goldenrod can certainly take over a flower garden in no time. Pull it early, pull it often. But outside of your flower gardens, leave it be. It may help to smother the ragweed while helping the pollinators!

  4. Kevin McKiernan says:

    Ah! That explains it.
    Thanks Paul

  5. Smitty says:

    Good stuff to know! How about an accompanying photo of that ner` do well cousin ragweed so I can be on the lookout for it. I’ll be going to the internet to find one.

  6. Rob says:

    Just cut a field with about 2 acres of the stuff. Customer wanted it down to relieve allergies. Wish I read this before I went over there. Lol

  7. Actually goldenrod pollen is quite allergenic, and if you look at it with a microscope, you see that it is very similar to its close relative, ragweed.
    Goldenrod is indeed mostly pollinated by insects, but…some of its pollen always gets away from the plant, and it isn’t all that heavy either.
    A large majority of people who test positive for allergy to ragweed, will also test positive for goldenrod…and this is especially true, if goldenrod is growing close to where they live.
    I agree, goldenrod is beautiful, and important for pollinators. But, please, let’s not keep on promoting this idea that it is not allergenic, when in fact, it is.

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