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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.