By Dr. Jim Lakin, MD & Master Gardener
Are you one of those gardeners that dreads late August? Those Big Beefsteak Tomatoes are beckoning. Those gorgeous green cucumbers are calling. You poke your nose outside and all you get are red, itchy teary eyes, sneezing, runny nose, drainage and cough. Yuck! You have hay fever. Hay fever or seasonal allergic rhinitis is unfortunately quite common. From 10 to 30% of the population suffers from it. A lot of gardeners note that just about the time these agonizing symptoms start, goldenrod blooms.
It is a wonderful late summer, fall bloomer loved by pollinators and providing a needed touch of color to the landscape, It’s a shame that this beautiful native plant has taken the rap, when in reality the real culprit for fall hay fever is ragweed (Ambrosia sp.) a rather un-prepossessing roadside weed that produces copious amounts of pollen from late August to the first hard frost
As you may have guessed, goldenrod is insect pollinated. In consequence its pollen is not particularly buoyant but rather is a bit sticky, suitable for adhering to a bee or wasp making his nectar rounds. In contrast ragweed falls into the category of some 10% of plants that are wind pollenated. Its microscopic pollen grains are light, buoyant and easily transported for considerable distances and altitudes. If you are allergic to ragweed, when you breathe in one of these pollens that your body’s immune system reacts as if it were an invading microorganism, creating immediate inflammation of the nose, eyes and sinuses. Many trees and grasses are similarly wind-pollinated and can cause hay fever in the spring and early summer.
So, what to do if you are a late summer mess but still have to get at those tomatoes and cukes? Going “Up North” for a few days of ragweed free breathing is a pretty good bet. It used to be that by the time you got north of Hinkley, the pollen would die out. Unfortunately, ragweed will seed disturbed ground readily. So, as development has expanded northward, so has the plant and its pollen. The North Shore is still a good bet to escape ragweed season, but with global warming that may change. If you can’t get away from ragweed, the University’s Health Care System has a number of excellent resources to help you get through to the first hard frost: