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Glorious Goldenrod!

Hazy, late afternoon summer sun. Blue skies, drowsy hum of busy insects, and calls of bobolinks, song sparrows and eastern meadowlarks. Picking blackberries. Old fields behind the barn, seas of yellow and green, stand out in my mind’s eye. Deep breaths of that crushed scent – lingering and distinct – bringing the outdoors inside on my clothes and, mostly, on my dog who wears that perfume until we head out the next morning to check on the status of wild things.

Glorious goldenrod, keystone of summer memories! One of our most versatile flowering plants, the humble goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is often misrepresented and undervalued. With more than 100 goldenrod species native to North America, there are certainly a few varieties that will best fit your property and help create a haven for wildlife. 

A photo of a goldenrod plant in bloom.

See if you can zoom in and identify at least 12 different insects on this one goldenrod bloom in my backyard. Photo courtesy Holly May, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

 

Beautiful, yellow goldenrod blooms provide nectar and habitat for a wide array of pollinating insects from butterflies and moths, to honey bees and native solitary bees; from wasps and ants, to flies and beetles. Bee keepers in the Northeast depend on Solidago species as their colonies’ major winter food source. The average sugar concentration in the nectar of some goldenrod species has been reported as high as 33%. Doug Tallamy, a University of Delaware entomologist, has studies that show more 115 butterfly and moth species in the Mid-Atlantic alone use goldenrods for food and shelter. For example, the seaside goldenrod (S. sempervirens), is salt-tolerant and blooms during the fall monarch migration, serving as an important food source. Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneron rigidium/S. rigida) is consistently held in the highest regard among entomologists because it serves up meals to more than 100 species of insects. Beneficial spiders and insect predators like praying mantis, lacewings, assassin bugs and ambush bugs also take advantage of the camouflage.  And don’t forget – bugs are protein. If you have a diverse and plentiful insect populations, you’ll attract more nesting birds feeding hungry chicks, small mammals prowling under cover, and larger predators searching for prey.

Speaking of pollen. Let’s clear up the misconceptions about “hay fever.” Two words that strike fear in the hearts of the allergy prone. Goldenrod is the victim here, not the culprit. These bright yellow flowers are animal-pollinated – they have heavy, sticky pollen granules that are carried from plant to plant, mostly by bugs. Common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), which blooms at the same time as many species of goldenrod, is the most likely allergy instigator. Ragweed flowers produce light-weight pollen that is dependent on wind-pollination. Though both goldenrod and ragweed belong to the Family Asteraceae, goldenrod belongs to the genus Solidago and ragweed belongs to the genus Ambrosia.

 

5 drawings of different types of flowers common to different species of goldenrod.

Identifying goldenrods can be difficult. Start by assigning the plant to one of the flower categories above and then if the leaves are feather-veined or parallel-veined. Photo courtesy Peterson Field Guides: Wildflowers of the Northeastern/Northcentral North America.

 

Hardy and adaptable, there is a goldenrod species to suit almost any growing condition. One thing to note, however; rich, fertile soils can result in tall, aggressive growth, like that of the Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis). These flowering plants are held in check by dry, far-from-ideal soils and root competition by other perennial plants. Some like the shade, like bluestem goldenrod (S. caesia) and zig-zag goldenrod (S. flexicaulis). Some like wetter areas like the narrow- or grass-leaved goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia/S. graminifolia). The gray, or old field, goldenrod (S. nemoralis) actually thrives in poor soils that are very dry, barren or stripped. In addition to being perennial natives and vigorous self-seeders, goldenrods are resistant to deer and rabbit browse, don’t need fertilizer and rarely need supplemental watering. Sturdy stalks also stand up to winter weather and create pockets of cover for overwintering insects and small critters.

 

Photo of bluestem goldenrod in bloom.

A bluestem goldenrod. Photo courtesy Stefan Bloodworth.

 

Goldenrod flowers also add bold color and hold up well as flower arrangements, blooming from July to October. So the next time you’re day-dreaming on a cold, winter evening about planting pollinator-friendly perennials in your backyard or meadow on a warm, spring day, consider adding a few goldenrod species into your seed mix and reap the rewards!

For more information, check out our site, Forests for the Bay

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Craig Highfield Director of Chesapeake Forests Program, Maryland Office

Craig is the Director of our Chesapeake Forests Program, where he manages a variety of projects that improve existing forests, create new ones, and educate residents and decision-makers about the benefits of forests in the Chesapeake watershed.

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