The truth about goldenrod

Goldenrod 'Fireworks'  Mark Levisay/Flickr 

Goldenrod 'Fireworks'  Mark Levisay/Flickr 

Pity the poor goldenrod, blamed without cause for the sneezy, wheezy irritations of fall allergies.

Embraced for more than a century by European gardeners, this American native is still viewed with suspicion by gardeners on this side of the Atlantic.

Time for a little myth-busting: Goldenrod, which produces sticky pollen carried by insect pollinators, is not the cause of autumn “hay” fever. The real culprit is ragweed, a far less conspicuous plant that blooms at the same time and spreads wind-borne pollen far and wide.   

Rather than being a risk to health and well-being, goldenrod actually has a long history as a healing herb. The plant’s botanical name, Solidago (sol-i-DAY-go) means “to make whole,” and refers to this plant’s role as a natural pharmaceutical.

In modern times, goldenrod’s allure is purely aesthetic. The rich, golden wands of this carefree flower provide stunning color in the late season garden, as well as food for bees and butterflies.

Goldenrod is a plant for lazy gardeners. Its sturdy, upright stems require no staking and its lance-shaped leaves are rarely bothered by insects or disease. It needs neither fertilizer nor pruning, adapts to a wide range of soil conditions, and is drought-resistant once established. Perhaps best of all, it is not favored by rabbits, woodchucks or deer, so protection is unnecessary.

There are nearly 100 species of wild goldenrod, native to habitats that include woodland edges, fields and seaside dunes. Of special interest to coastal gardeners is Solidago sempervirens or seaside goldenrod, one of the few plants that can take salt spray.

Seaside goldenrod  US Fish and Wildlife Service

Seaside goldenrod  US Fish and Wildlife Service

Goldenrod’s popularity as a garden subject today relies more heavily on newer hybrid types. Named cultivars have propelled goldenrod into the elite company of fall garden all-stars.

One of the most striking is ‘Fireworks,’ a plant found in a parking lot in Wilson, N.C. that has achieved worldwide fame. It bears unusually thin flower wands that shoot in all directions like an aerial starburst, accounting for its name.

‘Golden Fleece,’ growing just 18 to 24 inches tall, it is a compact fountain of gold. ‘Golden Baby’ is another dwarf 20 inches tall, with spikes of flowers that somewhat resemble the feathery celosia. Other outstanding border varieties include the pale yellow ‘Little Lemon,’ ‘Cloth of Gold,’ with primrose yellow flowers, and ‘Peter Pan,’ bearing flowers atop of 28 inch stems.

Goldenrod cultivation is simple. All it wants is full sun, good air circulation and adequate water while settling in. After the plants finish blooming, cut them back to prevent self-sowing and make way for next spring’s new shoots.

Even if goldenrod weren't so pretty, it would be worth growing as a late-season butterfly rest stop. Monarchs, in particular, are drawn to stands of goldenrod to fuel their migratory flight south. With mon­archs under pressure due to unfa­vorable conditions at their winter­ing grounds in the Mexican high­lands, those who make it to our neighborhoods need all the help they can get.

Other butterflies that favor goldenrod include buckeyes, sulphurs, American ladies, hair­streaks, great swallowtails and American coppers. Plant goldenrods with nectar-rich asters and sedum, and you could have a bonus of butterflies winging around your autumn borders — not a bad thing.

Spring is probably the favored season for planting goldenrod, but fall is not incorrect, providing you get them in early enough to set some roots before winter. Skulk around the garden centers, and you may find a few deeply dis­counted pots, as I did several sea­son back. Give these gorgeous na­tives a spot in your garden and see if you haven't struck gold.

Plant sources

Bluestone Perennials, 7211 Middle Ridge Road, Madison, Ohio 44057. (800) 852-5243 or www.bluestoneperennials.com.

Proven Winners, 111 E. Elm St., Suite D, Sycamore, Ill. 60178. (877) 865-5818 or www.provenwinners.com, which includes a locator for local retailers as well as mail order information.

Terra Nova Nurseries, 10051 S. Macksburg Road, Canby, Oregon 97013. (800) 215-9450 or www.terranovanurseries.com, which includes a locator for local retailers as well as mail order information.