By Terry W. Johnson
Weeks before the kaleidoscope of colorful fall foliage takes center stage throughout the state, we are treated with another visually spectacular show. This floral tapestry is fashioned with plumes of gold waving enticingly from roadside ditches, old fields and even along the edges of backyards such as mine.
Like far too many of our wild plants, goldenrod is largely unappreciated by most Georgians. In fact, many who suffer from allergies often blame their stuffy noses and watery eyes on this lovely plant. In truth, goldenrod pollen is rarely the cause of their malady. Only about 1 to 2 percent of the pollen floating about when goldenrod is blooming is produced by this showy plant.
Actually, ragweed, which is also blooming then, is often the culprit. However, since the ragweed’s flowers are drab and inconspicuous, its blossoms are rarely noticed by allergy sufferers. Ragweed is wind-pollinated while goldenrod pollen is quite heave and sticky. Consequently, it is spread from place to place primarily by insects and not fall breezes.
In fact, while goldenrod is blooming, untold numbers of nectar feeders such as moths, butterflies, bumblebees, wasps, soldier beetles, honeybees, syrphid flies and others converge on the plants’ breathtaking floral displays. These unknowing pollinators are there to reap their share of the goldenrod’s pollen or nectar.
As often happens, what is a weed to some is a valued landscape plant to others. While goldenrods are often featured in gardens throughout Europe, only now are they beginning to take a well-deserved place in American gardens. I am sure this perennial, which is hardy and requires little care, will eventually prove to be a garden favorite. Additionally, these wild flowers rarely need staking and often take on a more pleasing shape when grown in gardens.
Perhaps the easiest way to establish goldenrods is by dividing the rhizomes of mature plants in the early spring. A large goldenrod plant can be broken into two-dozen or more pieces. This can be done every three to four years without harming the plant.
From a distance, all goldenrods appear pretty much alike. However, there are actually 125 species
in the United States. The Southeast is home to at least 50 species. Botanists often can’t agree on how many goldenrods exist. One reason for this is that the plants often hybridize, making identification difficult even for experts.
If you want to try goldenrods in your garden, you can either purchase cultivated varieties from nurseries that specialize in native plants or take them from the wild.
If you collect plants from the wild, make sure you obtain permission from the landowner on whose land they are growing. Then, look at a number of stands of goldenrod while they are in full bloom. When you find one that has the proper height and flowering characteristics, flag it. Then come back and dig it up next spring and set it out in your garden.
When I found a few goldenrods had taken root in one of nectar feeder gardens last spring, I didn’t pull them up. While they eventually produced a bevy of gorgeous blooms, the plants grew to be at least 4 feet tall. They were far too tall for the place where they had volunteered. Consequently, this spring, I removed the pioneering plants.
Now in my yard, goldenrods are confined to the north boundary of my backyard. Here, they are intermingled with a number of other native plants that serve as a 25-foot wide natural border with my neighbor.
Should you decide to incorporate cultivated varieties into the landscape around your home, begin by visiting a nursery that specializes in native plants. You will find that you can choose varieties based on when they bloom (from mid to late summer to fall), height (1½ to more than 4 feet tall), leaf size, texture and color, and soil moisture (wet to dry).
If you have never visited a stand of goldenrod in full bloom, you are in for a real treat. When you do, I strongly suggest you bring a camera and close-focusing binoculars. You will need this equipment to fully appreciate the amazing numbers and varieties of insects you will find there. Some of the gorgeous insects I have discovered on goldenrod plumes are great purple, gray and red-banded hairstreaks, ailanthus webworm moths, brightly colored bees, and wasps and hornets.
If you allow goldenrod plants to remain standing throughout the winter, they will provide cover for songbirds, rabbits and small mammals. The seeds will be eaten by a number birds and small mammals. The American goldfinch is particularly fond of goldenrod seeds. Among the other birds that dine on the tiny seeds are swamp sparrows, eastern towhees, pine siskins and dark-eyed juncos. If you live the mountains, don’t be surprised to see ruffed grouse eating goldenrod seeds on cold winter days.
The therapeutic values of goldenrod have been touted for centuries. The plant’s genus name Solidago means “to make whole.” The first European settlers in North America used goldenrod in steam baths and to brew a tea-like drink. It is said the tea was used to treat sore throats and as a poultice on wounds and skin ulcers. Today, some herbalists use the plant as a diuretic, urinary antiseptic and anti-inflammatory drug.
If goldenrod doesn’t grace your yard, next spring set some plants out in a flowerbed, in a natural border or in an overlooked corner of your yard. When you do, you will be adding another beautiful bit of diversity to your landscape.
Then next fall, enjoy a spectacular prelude to the fall’s eye-popping foliage extravaganza without having to leave your yard.
Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN. His column is a regular Georgia Wild feature.