You Won’t Sneeze with These

It’s the beginning of autumn, and the fields and forest edges are now draped in a golden cloak. The goldenrods (Solidago spp. and Euthamia spp.) are coming into their peak of flowering just as Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies need them to fuel their 3,000-mile (more than 4,800 kilometers) journey to winter in the mountains of Mexico.

Goldenrods are pollinator powerhouses, and an important food for migrating Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus). Photo by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

There are 26 species of goldenrods in Connecticut. Although the British have many American goldenrods in their gardens for decades, here in the states we have only recently realized how important these native plants for are pollinators in our gardens. Other than cultivars, there are now even a few species that can be found for sale in most nurseries.

According to Jarrod Fowler of the Xerces Society and Sam Droege of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, more than 10 species of native, pollen-specialist bees depend on goldenrods for food and to raise young. A big reason beekeepers can continue to gather honey in the fall is because honeybees really love the nectar and pollen late season goldenrod blooms provide.

Goldenrods are members of the aster family (Asteraceae), one of the largest plant families in the world. Their small, yellow flowers usually grow in a group, called an inflorescence.

Goldenrods are highly adaptable and are found from bogs to sandy seashores. Are you looking for a plant that will grow in dry shade? There’s a goldenrod for that. Try Wreath or Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia). It doesn’t always show blue stems, but its bright, yellow blooms are right along the arching stem, looking like a wreath. I found it growing wild in my yard, propagated it from seed, and placed it in other areas. It’s one of my favorites.

. Wreath Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) has flowers all along it stems. It can grow in dry shade! Photo by Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) is another species that will grow in shade, although it likes slightly more moist conditions. It gets its name from the way the stem zigs and zags between each set of leaves.

Zig Zag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicualis) is named for the stems which “zig” and “zag.” Notice its broad, toothed leaves too. Photo by R. A. Nonenmacher, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), which grows along the shore, is sometimes offered for sale. It is a tough plant for sandy soils and is tolerant of salt spray.

Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) found growing in sand dunes at Barnegat Light in New Jersey. Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Like the scent of licorice? Smell the leaves of Licorice-scented Goldenrod (Solidago odora). It likes sunny sites.

Goldenrods get bad press for being thuggish and spreading through rhizomes. All the above species, however, are clump-forming and usually won’t spread throughout garden beds. They can increase through seed. That’s not a bad thing. When you plant for pollinators, plant in large, three-foot (one square meter) squares, because bees and butterflies home in on color.

Downy Goldenrod (Solidago puberula) is found in sandy barrens in New England. In this photo, it was found growing in the thin soil at the side of an old road in West Rock Ridge State Park in Hamden, Connecticut. Photo by the author.

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is an exception. It spreads by underground runners and may not be appropriate for your site. It is the species that you see in fields and meadows. And a native plant that can compete and hold its own against invasive Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) is not a bad thing either!

Fields of goldenrod usually include Canada Goldenrod (Solidago candensis), which is introduced and invasive in Europe. Photo by Leonora (Ellie) Enking from East Preston, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Other than being powerhouse pollinator plants, goldenrods are important ecologically in many other ways. Caterpillars that feed on them are in turn eaten by birds. The American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), among many other birds, feeds on the seeds. The White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) and Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) also feed on the seeds. They then are food for the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

The biggest bad rap I still hear today is that goldenrods cause allergies. Not true! Goldenrod depends on bees and other pollinators to spread its heavy and sticky pollen. The allergy culprit is Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), which is in flower at the same time. Its tiny, airborne pollen is spread by the wind.

There’s no excuse not to get on the pollinator pathway bandwagon and enhance your garden or local preserve with goldenrods. The bees will thank you.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

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