In late summer and fall, goldenrod appears! Don’t blame this golden beauty for allergies (that’s ragweed!). See what goldenrod looks like, why this amazing American native is so important for pollinators and our health, and how to grow goldenrod.
Goldenrod is a true American native. After the Boston Tea Party, goldenrod tea became known as “liberty tea” and was imbibed by the colonists to protest British taxation. Would you be surprised to find that goldenrod was once so popular that it was in the running for America’s national flower? In 1918, a survey found that Americans’ favorite contenders were clover, columbine, daisy, and goldenrod. This was before native goldenrod got the completely erroneous reputation of being a cause of allergies. (Today, the rose is our national flower.)
Goldenrod Is NOT the Same as Ragweed
A common misperception is that goldenrod (Solidago species), a perennial flowering herb, is the cause of hay fever—it’s actually wind-pollinated plants that are the source! The major culprit, ragweed (Ambrosia species), happens to look similar and also shares the same flowering period as goldenrod, plus both flowers appear in open fields and backyard gardens, so goldenrod is often labeled guilty by association.
What Does Ragweed Look Like?
Ragweed’s drab flowers often go unnoticed. The flowers do not contain any nectar and have no need to be attractive to insects because the wind does the work of spreading its lightweight pollen for miles. Seen under a microscope, these tiny granules are studded with hooks. No wonder they cause so much discomfort to our itchy eyes and runny nose! A single plant can produce over a billion pollen grains.
What Does Goldenrod Look Like?
Goldenrod puts on a show to attract pollinating insects, which then spread its pollen. Consequently …
- Its pollen grains are large, heavy, and sticky so that they will attach to the insect bodies.
- This means that the grains weigh too much to become readily airborne, so it’s not goldenrod pollen that’s floating in the air toward your nose and eyes. Conversely, ragweed’s pollen tends to be small and buoyant so that it can be carried airborne by the gentlest breeze.
But since it’s often goldenrod’s flowers that we see through our watery eyes (in between sneezes!), this beautiful flower gets the blame. Many allergy-prone gardeners unnecessarily go to great lengths to avoid goldenrod. What a shame for this beneficial plant!
Goldenrod (with pollinator!)
When Goldenrod Blooms
Goldenrod usually flowers from August or September through frost, carrying the garden from summer to fall. It’s late-season bloom is one reason why it’s such an asset to the garden, adding golden color when many other flower colors have faded.
Goldenrod’s Many Benefits
An important source of nectar for so many pollinators—such as butterflies and native bees—goldenrod is especially crucial to the winter survival of many honeybees. Its pollen adds considerable amounts of protein, fats, and minerals to the late-season diet of the bees. Goldenrod also hosts a huge variety of insect herbivores, such as beneficial spiders and insect predators like praying mantids, lacewings, assassin bugs, and ambush bugs.
Goldenrod also produces seeds that are beloved by birds, including goldfinches, grosbeaks, and nuthatches. Other birds—especially chickadees and downy woodpeckers—like the energy-rich larvae hidden in goldenrod galls (which are also hosts to other insects, from moths to flies).
Not only is goldenrod good for wildlife, but also it’s good for us humans. Some Native American tribes used the fresh or dried flowers in tea to cure different ailments. Today, it’s often used as a medicinal herb to relieve colds, fevers, and the flu. Modern pharmacists acknowledge that the herb’s power as a diaphoretic (perspiration inducer) is one of several reasons why it helps to “sweat out” illness.
A member of the Composite family, which includes daisies and sunflowers, goldenrod has panicles of tiny yellow flowers. If you look at the flower up close, you can see that they resemble tiny yellow daisies. This beautiful wildflower is an underappreciated asset.
It is a treasure to be enjoyed, like finding buried gold. In fact, the stiff stems of goldenrod were once used as divining rods to locate not only water but also, according to legend, deposits of silver and gold.
In the language of flowers, goldenrod symbolizes treasure and good fortune. It is thought that planting goldenrod beside the door to your house will bring unexpected good fortune your way. It’s worth a try!
These are tough, drought-tolerant plants that thrive in a wide range of soil, moisture, and pH conditions. Most appreciate full sun to light shade, but woodland natives like blue-stemmed goldenrod (S. caesia) and zigzag goldenrod (S. flexicaulis) will bloom in fairly deep shade.
Goldenrod grows from clumping or spreading rhizomes and can be propagated by division, seeds, or cuttings. It is an excellent addition to any garden border, wildflower meadow, or butterfly garden. There is a goldenrod for almost any situation—and that is nothing to sneeze at!
I’ve been told that over 25 species of goldenrod live in my area, and I have several different kinds in my yard. If you look at them carefully, you can see the subtle differences. Some have lance-shape leaves, while others are more elliptical. Some of the leaves are hairy, while others are smooth. The flowers can be on only one side of the stem or completely surrounding it.
Most often, the flowers are in arching sprays, but some are arranged in flat-top clusters or like upright candles.
For good fall color that reflects the late-summer sun, add some goldenrod to your garden. The brilliant yellows combine well with other late-summer bloomers like white boltonia, purple liatris, pink coneflowers, blue asters, and rosy Joe Pye weed. They also blend well with their Composite cousins, including coreopsis, gaillardia, and helenium!
See the Almanac Flower Guides for more gardening advice.