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There’s something in the air

August 27, 2017
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

As a young man growing up on the farm, I watched my father and brother suffer through "hay fever season." At the time, unable to experience their discomfort, I didn't appreciate what they miserably endured. Sadly, the past several years, have brought increased allergy symptoms upon me.

Now, I haven't been tested to see what bothers me most. It could be tree pollen, corn pollen, or a host of other things. For some reason, right or wrong, I have attributed my problems to ragweed. Why? You could call ragweed the poster child for allergy suffering. It is one of the primary causes for allergy sufferers. Ragweed pollen travels far! It has been measured in the air 400 miles out to sea and two miles up in the atmosphere. However, most ragweed pollen grains fall out fairly near their sources.

That yellow pollen would fall as I mowed weeds on the farm and turn the hood of the Farmall H from red to yellow. But it didn't bother me then.

What does ragweed look like? I'm glad you asked. Although there are seventeen kinds of ragweed in North America, around here there are primarily two kinds giant and common.

Ragweeds are soft-stemmed weeds that grow in much of the United States. I laughed when I read this description. If you were ever sent out as a kid with a corn knife to cut giant ragweed down it is anything but soft-stemmed. It can stand a staggering 15 feet...MORE tall! To put that into perspective, there are dwarf trees that don't come close to attaining such a lofty height. Common ragweed averages maybe three feet tall and is the wimpy brother of giant. They are tough and hardy, able to thrive in many places especially where soil disturbance occurs. These weed plants are often found along roadsides and riverbanks, in vacant lots, and field edges. Ragweed seeds can survive many decades in the soil, growing again when conditions become favorable.

What good is ragweed then? I'm glad you asked.

Ragweed is an annual. These annuals require disturbed, open soil to thrive. Although their pollen affects me, I am glad for the ecological role that annuals play in quickly establishing disturbed soil and minimizing erosion until long-lived perennials can establish and take their place. They are the "scabs" necessary to protect open wounded soil until perennials can become a permanent cover.

Some caterpillars dine on ragweed. The Native Americans had several medicinal uses for ragweed both topically and internally. Juice of the plant served for easing the pain of insect bites. Crushed root brewed as a tea was used as a laxative. It has astringent properties and was used as a skin disinfectant.

I can't say that even being the writer of this article has given me a lot more appreciation for ragweed. Oh, I guess a little. So, I suppose I need to just grab the tissues, nasal sprays, antihistamines and suffer through.



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