Reblogged from 30 August 2018
Every year about this time, my mother began sneezing almost non-stop. Ragweed! she’d snort. With no Zyrtec in those days to relieve her symptoms, only late September rains dampened the airborne pollen enough to keep it from spreading throughout the county, about a million grains per plant, per day, traveling hundreds of miles on the wind.
Common ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) grows in fields and pastures and country roadsides in Florida. The blossoms appear like small yellow-green daisies on relatively short bushy plants often covered in red clay dust. Not particularly pretty to look at.
Jacob Ragweed (Jacobaea vulgaris, syn. Senecio jacobaea)
Other ragweed species, however, grow spikes of yellow-green clusters from frond-like leaves, sometimes confused with look-alike goldenrod, as both share blooming times and wild habitat.
But goldenrod’s pollen is too heavy and sticky to become airborne; only bees and butterflies can spread it. In fact, goldenrod supports over a hundred caterpillar species and attract not only butterflies — such as American small copper, clouded Sulphur, and monarch — but also damselflies, lady bugs, and praying mantises.
Damselfly in larger than life view
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is a North American herbaceous perennial blooming from late summer into fall. The most common of its many varieties is the “Canada” goldenrod (S. canadensis), the one that grew in the open pine woods and fields where I grew up in Northwest Florida.
The plant is an aggressive spreader via underground rhizomes as well as by reseeding. Plants grow knee-high, thus sometimes nicknamed “bees knees.” Imagine wading through a field of goldenrod buzzing with little honey bees, and you’ll see what I mean, although I’m being a bit far fetched.
Little boy picking up pollen on his trouser knees in a field of goldenrod in Frederick, Maryland. Photo courtesy Shey Marin Photography
The European variety, S. virgaurea, is cultivated as a garden flower and for medicinal purposes. In folk medicine, it’s traditionally used as an anti-inflammatory to treat wounds, along with sweet woodruff and yarrow, and thus often called “woundwort.”
Goldenrod’s many lookalike “cousins” can be toxic because they may contain a pyrrolizidine alkaloid which causes irreparable liver damage in both humans and livestock. Symptoms can be hard to detect, not manifesting for months. By the time that symptoms finally present, the damage has been done already.
Groundsel in the United Kingdom
Ragwort appears similar to ragweed pictured at top
To be sure, I advise keeping a respectful distance from goldenrod unless you know, with certainty, what’s out there in those late summer fields and along roadsides. Admire their golden fleece flowers, yes, but don’t touch. And don’t make a tincture of tea, either!
Now, you may ask, what’s the real origin of “bee’s knees“?
According to my online research, the term derives from American pop culture. Some sources state that the singular bee’s knee is from the late 18th century, meaning something small or insignificant, as in the phrase “big as a bee’s knee.” Others indicate it was one of the phrases popular in the 1920s, such as the the cat’s pyjamas, cat’s meow, gnat’s elbow, monkey’s eyebrows. It was flapper talk for a highly admired person or thing.
Another source unequivocally insists it was the name of a popular Prohibition Era cocktail made with gin, fresh lemon juice, and honey, then served shaken and chilled, often with a lemon twist.
Here’s another one, a bit more factual. As bees buzz from blossom to blossom, the nectar — the sweet stuff — sticks to their legs. Or, to their “knees.”