Ragweed — Ragweeds (Ambrosia), also called bitterweeds and bloodweeds, are a genus of flowering plants from the sunflower family (Asteraceae).
The scientific name of this genus is sometimes claimed to be derived from the Ancient Greek term for the perfumed nourishment of the gods, ambrosia which would be ironic since the genus is best known for one fact: its pollen produces severe and widespread allergies. However, the generic name is actually cognate with the name of the divine dish, both being derived from ambrotos, “immortal”. In the case of the plants, this aptly refers to their tenaciousness, which makes it hard to rid an area of them if they occur as invasive weeds.
Ragweeds occur in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere and South America. Ragweeds prefer dry, sunny grassy plains, sandy soils, and to grow along river banks, along roadsides, disturbed soils, vacant lots and ruderal sites. Ragweed was far less common in the Eastern United States before major land clearance by European settlers began in the late 18th century.
There are c.41 species worldwide. Many are adapted to the arid climates of the desert. Burrobush (A. dumosa) is one of the most arid-adapted perennials in North America. About 10 species occur in the Sonoran Desert.
Ragweeds are annuals, perennials, and shrubs and subshrubs (called bursages), with erect, hispid stems growing in large clumps to a height of usually 75-90 cm. The stems are basally branched. They form a slender taproot or a creeping rhizome. Common Ragweed (A. artemisifolia) is the most widespread of this genus in North America. It attains a height of about a meter. Great Ragweed (Giant Ragweed, “Horseweed”; A. trifida), may grow to four meters (13 feet) or more.
The foliage is grayish to silvery green with bipinnatifid, deeply lobed leaves with winged petioles; in the case of Ambrosia coronopifolia, the leaves are simple. The leaf arrangement is opposite at the base, but becomes alternate higher on the stem.
Ambrosia is a monoecious plant, i.e. it produces separate male and female flower heads on the same plant. The numerous tiny male inflorescences are yellowish-green disc flowers about 3 mm in diameter. They grow in a terminal spike, subtended by joined bracts. The whitish-green single female flowers are inconspicuously situated below the male ones, in the leaf axils. A pappus is lacking.
After wind pollination, the female flowers develops into a prickly, ovoid burr with 9-18 straight spines. It contains one arrowhead-shaped seed, brown when mature, and smaller than a wheat grain. This burr gets dispersed by clinging to the fur or feathers of animals passing by.
The seeds are an important winter food for many bird species. Ragweed plants are used as food by the larvae of a number of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths); see list of Lepidoptera that feed on ragweeds.