Guilty by Misidentification: How to Tell the Difference between Goldenrod and Ragweed

Reader Contribution by Nicole G. Carlin and Singing Wren Farm
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Ragweed in full bloom.

Every fall, a leggy native weed begins to show its true colors. Along roadsides, in ditches, fields, and the edge of woods: goldenrod begins to gleam forth. But alas, there is a smear campaign at work, worthy of today’s political scene.

So what is the lie? That the waving golden tide arriving right about now is to blame for our fall seasonal allergies. Over and over I hear people lamenting the beautiful golden explosion as “ragweed!”

Dear folks, it’s just not true and I am here to tell you why.

Visual Identification of Ragweed and Goldenrod

Above is ragweed, in full bloom.

You will notice the flowers are negligible, tiny, barely noticeable as flowers at all.


This is goldenrod (well one of the many varieties, actually) but goldenrod as we know it, with brightly colored and obvious flowers.


Science Behind Flower Types

In the world of plant science, plants do not develop blooms for us (sorry but it’s true). The flowers develop to help the plant propagate. In the case of ragweed, the method of spreading its pollen (or boy bits) is by wind. Thus, the flowers exist only to get the tiny and easily airborne pollen into the air — and, unintentionally but unfortunately, up your nose.

Goldenrod, on the other hand, is busy at work utilizing a different method. Its pollen is too heavy to spread by the wind, so it needs help. The goldenrod puts a lot of energy into generating nectar and pollen in a gorgeous package to entice their friend and ours: the bee.

Bees pick up the pollen on their bodies and spread it from flower to flower.

Spring, the other season of great allergy affliction, is when tree pollen is on the wind. Now ask yourself, “how often have I noticed maple, oak, and pine flowers?” Perhaps never? That’s because, like the ragweed, the trees distribute their pollen on the wind. The flowers are generally miniscule.

Plants that go to the effort to create attractive flowers do so because their pollen needs help and is, therefore, unlikely to be the culprit behind your itchy eyes and streaming nose.

So stand tall America, vindicate this true native wild child. Goldenrod is an important source of nectar and pollen for migrating birds and insects, it’s darn pretty, and it is not ragweed!

Nicole G. Carlin is a Northwest Pennsylvania homesteader and educator who raises heritage-breed livestock on her 22-acre, restored Singing Wren FarmConnect with Nicole at Smoldering Wick, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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