What Thomas Edison and goldenrod teach us about allergy

January 25, 2016

Right about now, you are probably wondering, “Is there a real connection between the plant and the late inventor?”

Right about now, you are probably wondering, “Is there a real connection between the plant and the late inventor?” Before the cat strays too far out of the bag, let us take a brief look at goldenrod’s background. Belonging to the genus Solidago, the plant has an interesting historical significance in the horticulture and allergy worlds. There are over 100 flowering species, sourced mostly throughout North America but are also found in pockets of South America, Europe, and Asia.1,2

Without delving too deep into botany, the goldenrod blossoms are typically radial in nature, producing pollen that is both heavy and sticky.1 By virtue of these properties, it does not allow for a large dispersion from the flower but does make it attractive to pollinators such as bees and butterflies.3 This information might seem out of time and place; nevertheless, it certainly relates to eye care with regard to our differential diagnosis for fall allergy sufferers.

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Edison’s last adventure

As promised, a fascinating twist in the goldenrod story comes from the legendary Thomas Alva Edison. As luck would have it, I happened to be in West Orange, NJ, for a wedding a few years ago. Passing time before the festivities began, I decided to head over to his museum. What I found beyond the usual treasure trove of inventions was his hybridized species, Solidago edisoni.4         

Looking back in time, there was growing concern in the late 1920s with the increased price and shortage of natural rubber coming from East Asia. Subsequently, Edison with his hunt-and-try approach scoured the literature and the counsel of botanists for several years, relying heavily on his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone in the burgeoning car industry. Just prior to his death in 1931, he was able to produce industrial rubber from the goldenrod leaves-but with limited application as a blend rather than a replacement for the original product.4,5 Although his foray was not a complete success, his efforts laid the groundwork for the likes of DuPont and Firestone to achieve the synthetic product known as neoprene.4

Next: Guilt by association


Guilt by association

At one time or another, we have all placed blame on goldenrod as a culprit with our seasonal allergy patients. From personal experience, I had a 35-year-old Hispanic male who presented in late August with the typical allergy symptoms and signs based on the Conjunctival Allergan Challenge or Ora-CAC model of acute itching, profound redness (Grade 4: incapacitating irresistible urge to rub and large, numerous vessels over the entire vessel bed) and 3+-4 papillary reaction of the palpebral conjunctiva in both eyes.6 The “rub” with this case was that he insisted it must be goldenrod because it grows near his house.

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At first, I went along with his logic, but my sixth sense was telling me to do more with the case. After consulting with my local allergist, we decided the best course of action would be to order a comprehensive allergy panel because the patient never had one in the past. Low and behold, the results came back negative for goldenrod but positive for ragweed. When I reported the findings back to the patient, he was utterly shocked with disbelief.

The obvious question is why not goldenrod? Here is the misunderstanding: due to the heft of the pollen granules, the wind currents cannot loft it higher in the air column or carry it very far to facilitate a significant allergic response.3 Consequently, the plant is a casualty of guilt by association with ragweed since both bloom around the same time in the late summer to early fall. Ragweed, in the genus Ambrosia with about 50 species, is truly the antithesis of its companion flora.6,7 A single plant can produce approximately one billion pollen granules that are light and fluffy, traveling for days in the wind up to 300 to 400 miles away.8,9 Additionally, the weed contains profilin and calcium-binding proteins of which are two highly pan-allergenic compounds responsible for an increased U.S. prevalence of 50 percent in the atopic population.10 Interestingly enough, as ragweed tends to cause an oral allergy syndrome similar in response to fruit, vegetable, and nuts, exposure to the leaves of goldenrod can cause an allergic dermatitis.11-13

Above and beyond

The teachable moment in this case is to never discount the power of collaborative care. Even though I see a far amount of severe allergy patients in my practice, it does not mean that I am the ultimate authority. My relationship with my local allergy specialists is both an enriching and vital education that continues to enhance my patient experience. In this particular case, the combination treatment of sublingual Ragwitek (short ragweed pollen extract, Merck) and ocular Pazeo (olopatadine hydrochloride, Alcon) was employed with excellent stabilization of symptoms and signs within the first three days. 

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1. Semple JC, RE Cook. Solidago in Flora of North America. Available at: http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=130659. Accessed 11/10/2015.

2. Chen Y, JC Semple. Solidago in Flora of China. Available at: http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=130659. Accessed 11/10/2015.  

3. Imes R. Goldenrods. Endangered Wildlife and Plants of the World. New York: Marshall Cavendish; 2001. p. 632–7.

4. Thulesius O. Rubber and Goldenrod. Edison in Florida: the Green Laboratory. Gainesville: University Press of Florida; 1997. p. 83–93.

 5. Presley JT. Rubber Content Of Goldenrod Leaves Affected By Light. Science. 1936 May 8;83(2158):436.

6. Abelson MB, Chambers WA, Smith LM. Conjunctival allergen challenge. A clinical approach to studying allergic conjunctivitis. Arch Ophthalmol. 1990;108(1):84–8.

7. The Plant List - A working list for all plant species. Ambrosia. The Plant List; 2010.  Available at: http://www.theplantlist.org/browse/a/compositae/ambrosia/. Accessed 11/14/2015.

8. Samter M, Talmage DW. Immunological Diseases. 3rd ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.; 1978. p. 788.

9. Rees, AM. Consumer Health USA: Essential Information from the Federal Health Network 2nd ed. Volume 2. Westwood: Greenwood; 1997. p. 32.

10. Wopfner N, Gadermaier G, Egger M, et al. The Spectrum of Allergens in Ragweed and Mugwort Pollen. Int Arch Allergy Immunol. 2005 Dec;138(4):337–46.

11. de Jong, NW, Vermeulen AM, van Wijk RG, et al. Occupational allergy caused by flowers. Allergy. 1998 Feb;53(2): 204–9.

12. Oral Allergy Syndrome. Government of Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Public Affairs. Canada.ca; 2012. Available at: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/information-for-consumers/fact-sheets/food-allergies/oral-allergy-syndrome/eng/1332351950134/1332352076501. Accessed 11/14/2015

13. Zarkadas M, Scott FW, Salminen J, et al. Common allergenic foods and their labelling in Canada: a review. Can J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1999;4:118–141.