Goldenrod – the prolific and misunderstood wild plant
“Across acres of old pastures, where the goldenrod are taking over, late August and early September turn the land into a tumbling sea of the richest yellow. The fields are awash with waves of goldenrod that flow across the slopes and break against the stone walls and the woods.” — Edwin Way Teale, from A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm
My favorite wildflower is one that came with our property in Putnam. It was not planted in a flower garden or purchased at a local nursery but took root quite easily in a patch of back pasture I neglected to mow one year. That was all it took and the following August through September we had bright yellow flowers on tall stalks of goldenrod happily taking up residence in a corner of the field.
A drive in the countryside this time of year is to see the colorful goldenrod in abandoned fields, roadsides and along the edges of cultivated fields of hay and corn. It is the first gold of the foliage season and a splash of color well before the leaves start to change from their green summer attire to the brighter hues of autumn. As the days grow shorter and the gradual seasonal change is near, the yellow clusters glowing in the sun are one of the last food plants visited by honeybees before winter.
Growing up I remember my mom bemoaning the sight of goldenrod and blaming it for her fall hay fever. It is prolific in its fall bloom cycle and frequently mistaken for ragweed, a plant it hardly resembles in appearance, but which is the real culprit of late summer and autumn hay fever. In fact, goldenrod pollen is heavy and sticky and unlike ragweed is not airborne pollen, but instead carried on the legs and bodies of bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects.
You may be surprised to know there are about 70 or more species of goldenrod in North America. They are found practically everywhere, not just in fields but also in woodlands, swamps, and mountains. Here in New England we have up to 25 species, and with their flag-like golden flower heads on tall, thin, woody stems, they are easily spotted. However, identifying specific species can be frustrating with a standard field guide as the individual species variations can be hard to determine without a magnifying glass. The goldenrod in my backfield are mostly 3-4 feet tall on erect slender stems. Their lance-shaped leaves alternate surrounding the central stem and have sharply toothed edges. The yellow flowers are small and numerous with flower heads clustering at the top of the plant. Some flower clusters are upright and some droop downward.
The Latin name for goldenrod is “Solidago” and means “becoming whole,” a reference to its many medicinal properties and uses. Native Americans would boil leaves and stems and use the infused water for bathing wounds, rashes and other skin ailments. It was also used for sore throats, bladder infections, as an anti-inflammatory and for other ailments. When I worked at Old Sturbridge Village the historical interpreters would gather the flowers to be dried and then used as dye for coloring yarn and fabric. It produces a beautiful, soft yellow color.
Goldenrod regeneration is from seed and from creeping rhizomes 2-5 inches long. The flowers are pollinated by several insects and seeds are spread by the wind. Rhizomes appear after the first year of growth and each can produce a single shoot. They are referred to as “colonizers” of disturbed areas and if not controlled can take over a garden area. Though they can be aggressive growers, it is nice to know they are a native species, and not one of the several non-native introduced plants now plaguing our fields and roadsides as unwanted invasive plants.
When I walk to our back field and stop to view the large patch of goldenrod I see it literally buzzing with activity. The plants are a magnet for honey bees, bumble bees and even yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets. I look for butterflies and moths and am always pleased when I see a monarch butterfly feeding on the nectar and fueling up before its long journey to south of the border. One time as I walked into the patch I caused a praying mantis to fly up from my clumsy tromping feet to another part of the patch. It was probably on the hunt for one of the many different types of insects inhabiting the goldenrod patch.
Fall is here and our region’s beautiful goldenrod — the star attraction of our later blooming wildflowers has entered the stage. Too soon its flowers will also drop and set seeds in the final act of flora spectacle, waiting for the chill of approaching winter to close the curtain on another year.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. It is our homegrown National Park full of amazing flora and fauna — even the misunderstood and maligned goldenrod. I hope you’ll join me as we care for, enjoy and pass it on.
Information for this column was gleaned from the “Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers – Eastern Region,” “Goldenrod: The Everything, Everywhere Flower,” by Joel Rankin, from “The Outside Story, Vol 2” published by Northern Woodlands, A Field Guide to your Own Backyard,” by John Hanson Mitchell, and the website for Native Plant Trust (formerly known as the New England Wildflower Society), and the website for the Purdue University Extension Service.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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