It’s finally time for goldenrod to start blooming. This is one of my favorite times of year, since goldenrod is perhaps my favorite North American wildflower.
First off, goldenrod is not the cause of your fall allergies, although most noses readily clog at about the same time it starts to bloom. Goldenrod pollen is heavy and requires help from flower-visiting animals in order to move between plants, and is not lifted into the air very far by even the strongest breeze.
In the vast majority of circumstances, fall allergies come from the more subtle ragweed, which has tiny flowers and flighty pollen that is distributed by the wind. Goldenrod simply takes the bad rap since it is more visibly in bloom than ragweed. Not only do they not cause allergies, but the more than 100 species of goldenrods are important plants for wildlife.
Sporting an abundance of easily accessible shallow flowers, goldenrod is a truly cosmopolitan plant which attracts almost every hungry pollinator still around this late into the season. It is also a host plant for more than 100 species of caterpillars, mostly due to the defensive chemicals coursing through its leaves that caterpillars adopt for their own purposes.
Some of these chemicals also attracted the attention of Thomas Edison, who experimented heavily with goldenrod in order to try and develop a variety for the economical production of rubber. While he was eventually successful in breeding some monstrously large goldenrods that produced a good amount of rubber, the end product turned out to be a bit too tacky for immediate use and was eventually left by the wayside of the rubber trade.
There are many types of goldenrod native to our area, each with its own unique growing habit and site preference.
Goldenrods are in the aster family, and their general form is similar to most asters except for the fact that goldenrod tends to grow as a singular “rod” with very few stems or branches except at the very top. These are some of the toughest plants around, and can be found growing in all manner of soils and conditions that would cause other plants to struggle.
Goldenrod’s scientific name, Solidago, means to heal or make whole. This is a callback to the herb’s use as a medicine for a wide range of ailments by early human cultures. Goldenrod was used for hundreds of years to treat wounds as a poultice, and internally as well, especially for problems with the kidneys. Native Americans relied on goldenrod seeds for food during hard times and also made teas from their young leaves.
The seeds can survive beneath the surface of the soil for a prolonged period of time, biding their time in the seed bank until the time is right for them to begin growing. I stopped cutting my lawn three years ago, and after a year there were almost 10 species of goldenrod emerging from their slumber throughout the yard, awoken after waiting their turn for who knows how long.
Goldenrods distribute chemicals through their roots that serve to slow the growth of any other plants nearby, so they quickly colonize an area after a year or two and keep out weeds or other invaders easily. They do best left to themselves in a large swath, typically towards the back of a garden as they tend to tower over most other plants in late summer and fall.
If you have a small patch that you’re hoping to increase in size, wait until the flowers have all turned to seeds, and simply bend and bury the top of the plant a few inches below the soil. Otherwise, surround your goldenrod patches with rugged plants like asters, sunflowers and golden alexanders to help keep them contained.
Brannen Basham is a writer and horticulturalist. Together with his wife, Jill Jacobs, he owns Spriggly’s Beescaping, focused on nature education and habitat restoration. He recently published his first book, “A Guide to the Wonderful World Around Us: Notes on Nature.” For more information visit www.sprigglys.com.