No one knows exactly what corner of hell spawned the plant known as common ragweed, Ambrosia artemisiifolia. Oh sure, it’s pretty enough, with its neon-green stems and foliage like fine lace. But rather less appealing is the fact that it produces one of the strongest allergens out there.
Here in Western North Carolina, ragweed sent up its golden flower stalks in recent days and its pollen is drifting around like the school bully. If you’ve woken with a head full of snot and eyes like an Ed Roth character, chances are pretty good it’s paid you a visit.
“Maybe 20 percent of the population suffers from significant seasonal allergies,” says Bill McCann, allergist with Allergy Partners of Western North Carolina in Asheville. “And of allergens, ragweed is definitely one of the most potent.”
Why? Because of what McCann refers to as “a perfect combination of factors.” Size is one — ragweed’s pollen grains are neither too big nor too small, but just right for lodging in human airways — and quantity another (it’s devilishly abundant). Viewed with an electron microscope, ragweed pollen appears singularly evil, like a tool of the Inquisition.
The plant is native to North America, but is possibly more abundant now than it ever was, owing to the fact that it likes disturbed soils such as those found on the margins of farm fields, construction sites and roadways. And while there may be no escaping it, McCann says sufferers can gain a bit of relief by running their air conditioning, by taking antihistamine drugs when needed and, if warranted, by desensitizing themselves over time with allergy shots administered by a qualified allergist.
Our mild climate also means a longer ragweed season, says McCann. “A lot of places in the Midwest have a well-defined fall allergy season. It lasts, say, four to six weeks and then cold weather sets in.” Ragweed’s reign here, on the other hand, can last “anywhere from six to as many as 10 or 12 weeks, depending on the weather,” he says.
— Kent Priestley, staff writer