The Goldenrod's Not for Sneezing

BARBARA TUFTY

September 16, 1993|By BARBARA TUFTY

Washington. -- Sneeze if you must -- but don't blame the goldenrod!

The real culprit for hay fever these autumn days is ragweed, a coarse, many-leafed green-flowered plant that thrives everywhere -- in meadows, edges of woods, in empty city lots, in the corner of your garden if you don't watch out.

Goldenrods have long been cursed and maligned erroneously for causing the itchy noses and throats and swollen eyes of late summer. But it's ragweed that should take the rap. Both plants come into full flower in late August and September -- one of the worst seasons for allergy-prone folks.

The difference between sneeze and no-sneeze plants lies in the way their pollen grains travel: ragweed pollen flies by wind; goldenrod is hoisted by insects.

In order to ensure its own immortality through the ages, a flower must pollinate another flower of its own species, produce a seed, and create the next generation. One of the most ancient ways of strewing pollen -- the ''sperm'' of a flower -- over vast distances is to let the wind blow it. That's the way ragweed handles its problem of eternal life. Another way to seminate pollen is to let the birds, bees, butterflies carry it from one flower to another -- the method of the goldenrod.

At this time of year as summer turns into golden autumn, the majestic heads of goldenrod stand tall over the meadows and edges of woods, abuzz with wasps, gnats, butterflies, perhaps with an occasional hummingbird collecting honey for its long trip south across the Caribbean.

These plants are members of the composite family, relatives of the familiar daisies, dandelions, asters. All of this family have brightly colored flower heads composed of many tiny complete flowers designed to attract insects -- but nothing to do with the wind at this time of their life cycle. If they depended on wind to propagate, they would have no need for bright colors and would revert to something as drab as the tiny green flowers of the ragweed.

Some ragweeds may tower above your head with large leaves and spikes of inconspicuous flowers; others may be only as high as your knee.

The plant is an annual and can be easily yanked out of your yard or from the roadside as you take a walk. Pull it out wherever you see it -- you can stop some seeds from becoming ripe and producing next year's offspring.

There are more than 80 species of goldenrod in the United States. Some bloom early and grow 6 feet high (Solidago canadensis); some have tall arching sprays of bright yellow flowers (S. rugosa); others have a zigzag stem with small clusters of flowers bunched in the leaf axils (S. flexicaulis). The sweet goldenrod (S. odora) has narrow shining leaves that have a fragrant scent when crushed; and the goldenrod that thrives near the sea (S. sempervirens) has large orange-yellow flowerheads. Only one goldenrod is white (S. bicolor) -- this slender silver-rod can be found in dry woods.

The genus name, Solidago, means to ''make whole'' -- referring to the healing properties of its tea leaves used to treat kidney stones and other urinary-tract problems, to stop hemorrhaging, or to medicate hay fever, sore throats, coughs and colds. Goldenrod honey is delicious.

No one makes tea or honey from ragweed. The most prodigious thing this plant can do, alas, is to produce a million grains of pollen a day when it is at its peak. A million sneezes.

So take time now to look and admire those magnificent goldenrods, radiating light and gold in the autumn sunshine.

Malign them no more. They are not to be sneezed at.

Barbara Tufty is co-authoring a book on wildflowers of the Baltimore-Washington area.

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