A small plant behind a big problem
Every year at around the same time at the end of the summer people across the country start getting itchy eyes, runny noses and congestion. But unlike the flu, this affliction is not caused by a virus but rather a small leafy plant.
Ragweed is endemic to North America and is one of the lead causes of various respiratory illnesses and seasonal hay fever. Ragweed affects about 1 in 8 Quebecers according to the figures by the Association pulmonaire du Québec.
While municipal bylaws used to fine people for not pulling it out, one Park Extension resident has taken it upon herself to pick up the slack and pull the weed from the neighbourhood.
Mary McCutcheon is a longtime Park Extension resident and works to pull out as much ragweed as she can in a fight to help keep the neighbourhood’s air allergen-free.
“It’s something that no one’s really looking after in a systematic way,” said McCutcheon of the weed that grows throughout Montreal. Along with her friend Grace Go, the pair seek out ragweed and pull it out from leaf to root.
McCutcheon decided to start pulling the plant as she feels not enough is being done about it and not enough attention is being attributed to what she sees as a local health issue.
“We try and inform people, we educate them,” said McCutcheon of her efforts, adding that most people aren’t even aware the plant causes allergies. McCutcheon explained that by removing the plant, less pollen is released into the air and therefore reduces allergies in the population.
Small plant, big effects
Ragweed is a small flowering plant that creates and spreads pollen notorious for causing allergies like hay fever.
With a height ranging from 5 centimetres to upwards of 1.5 metres, the plant has green, carrot-like leaves and thick buds with yellow pollen. The release of pollen is at its peak between mid-August to early October and is worst between 10 AM and 3 PM.
This also coincides with peak times for hay fever amongst Canadians, which causes allergic effects such as itchy eyes, a stuffy nose and congested symptoms. Its cause is directly related to allergens and pollen in the air.
The weed is often found in places where it faces little competition from other plants, especially in small cracks in pavement and along the sides of asphalted alleyways.
Ragweed patrol disbanded
The issue also came up at the June borough council meeting when resident Thérèse Nadeau asked why the borough had not renewed its dedicated ragweed pulling brigade this year.
“I am deeply disappointed on the decision to not prolong the ragweed eradication project by the borough,” said Nadeau, adding that “if it isn’t controlled it will multiply and all the efforts deployed since 2018-2019 will be in vain.”
Mayor Giuliana Fumagalli said that the city had cancelled the program to redirect resources towards other strategies.
“We decided to put in place a pilot project to renaturalize green spaces,” she said, adding that other boroughs that had adopted the strategy had noticed a better capacity to handle invasive plants like ragweed.
She nonetheless encouraged citizen initiatives stating that “eradicating ragweed is a lengthy task and everyone must get their hands dirty to get there. ”
While McCutcheon doesn’t feel it’s only up to the city to deal with ragweed, she thinks they could implement more innovative solutions. “They should be conscious of it,” said McCutcheon, adding that the city could recruit young people over the summer.
“When teachers are taking their little groups of kids and are walking up and down, they can teach them ‘that is ragweed; pull it out, take it home,” she said. “It would raise the awareness of it,” she added.
This is also a strategy that the borough has adopted, including a section on ragweed and how to remove it in its monthly newsletter. They write that the weed is responsible for 75% of summertime allergies and costs the Quebec health system an estimated $240 million a year.
The borough and the city continue to encourage people to contribute to the fight against the weed but have increasingly depended on prevention rather than removal strategies. People who want to remove it simply have to pull the plant out with the root and dispose of it in a bag to ensure the pollen doesn’t spread.
“Once you become a ragweed picker you find yourself looking down,” McCutcheon joked while looking out for more weeds to pull. Although she enjoys her evening strolls and ragweed picking, she would like to see more people join in the cause.
“It doesn’t cost you anything, you can do it on your own time and it’s good exercise,” she said jovially, adding that the city could do more to raise awareness and to encourage more volunteers.
“When I’m walking the metro, I just take an extra 10 minutes to look around and you have the satisfaction of helping solve a problem,” said McCutcheon. “Many people are motivated by being able to help helps help their neighbours,” she concluded.