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Legends of the fall

By John Fulton

[AUG. 28, 2006]  All we have to do is look at a calendar and we can see fall is coming at us rapidly. There are also many other signs, symptoms and legends that predict the change in season and the severity of the winter.

The woolly bear caterpillar legend is one of the most often quoted. The banded woolly bear is black at both ends and has orange and black stripes in the middle. The legend says the more stripes that are black in the middle, the more severe the winter. Science says more dark stripes are dependent on moisture conditions in the area and the age of the caterpillar. There are also nine U.S. species. The banded woolly bear is the larvae of the Isabella moth. Other moth larvae in the group have different colored caterpillars.

Of course, the first frost can be predicted by the singing of cicadas. "Six weeks from the first song of the dog day cicada comes the first frost." Boy, I hope not. That would mean tomorrow is going to be quite chilly. A yellow butterfly flying in your face also means a frost, but this time it will be in 10 days.

There are some more meaningful signs. The buckeye trees have started losing their leaves in large numbers, combines have begun moving in the earliest corn fields, and ragweed season is here.

If you're one who usually suffers from the fall allergy season, you know the symptoms all too well. Many people blame goldenrod as the culprit, when it is mostly ragweed problems.

Giant ragweed

In our area, we have two types of ragweed. The most noticeable is giant ragweed. Giant ragweed, also called horseweed, can grow well over 10 feet tall. It is very noticeable as one of the few weeds that grow taller than our Illinois corn. The other type of ragweed is common ragweed. It is generally less than 6 feet tall and not nearly as noticeable.

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Ragweeds tend to bloom in late summer. The period can range from mid-August to mid-September. They put out a lot of pollen when they bloom. The amount of pollen is one problem, but the shape of the pollen is the other. The shape of the pollen is more jagged and sharp along the edges, making it more of an irritant than other types of pollen.

Add in the usual ragweed problems, alternating wet and dry conditions, and early leaf drop, and we have the recipe for an allergy sufferer's nightmare. There are also several leaf molds that are at work, and that compounds the allergy problem.

What can you do? One, try to eliminate ragweed in your particular area. Two, avoid the mid- to late-morning period in the great outdoors. This is when more pollen is released. Three, you can stay indoors (or in office or car) with air conditioning. And, if your problems are particularly troublesome, talk to your doctor. There are prescriptions and over-the-counter products that can help alleviate at least some of the symptoms.

This has probably been one of the worst years in history for the problem. This is a couple weeks earlier than normal and even eclipses 2004. So take some comfort in the fact that next year will probably be better, and be reminded that fall is on the way.

[John Fulton, unit leader, University of Illinois Extension, Logan County Unit]

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