I was riding shotgun with my guy last weekend. As we were flying down a dirt road, he nodded towards the ditch on his side. It was clogged with tall leafy plants topped with gazillions of tiny yellow flowers. They’re the reason for my fits of sneezes, he said. A conversation ensued. He was quite sure those plants were ragweed. I was quite sure they weren’t. Taking up the plants’ defence, I said “Well, I’ll prove it to you!” Hence, this posting. I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure goldenrod must be the poster flower for misunderstood plants.
WHAT’S GOLDENROD, ANYWAYS?
It’s not one single species, that’s for sure. Until I started researching this plant (for a course I was taking earlier this year on native plants), I had no idea there were so many of them. There are a little over a hundred different species native to Canada and the U.S. There are others native to Mexico, and still others native to South America, Europe and Asia. Ontario Wildflowers lists 21 different goldenrods in my province alone–with a warning that distinguishing one type of goldenrod from another ain’t easy. Sometimes the differences are minute. But they all have yellow flowers perched on stems that present the blooms in either flat-topped, wand-shaped or conical inflorescences. If you’re into plant identification, check out the University of Michigan’s Herbarium resource on Solidago for exact attributes to look for in a variety of species.
I’m not sure I’ve seen Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). It’s native to most of Canada and the U.S. But it’s probably growing in plain sight, reaching up to 5 feet tall and topped with dramatically large, horizontally branched panicles glowing with tiny yellow flowers.
IS IT MAKING YOU ALLERGIC?
Ragweed (which doesn’t look anything like goldenrod) is the cause of those sneezes and itchy eyes. Goldenrod’s pollen is too heavy and sticky to get blown by the wind across a field and up your nose. Instead, it’s pollinated by insects. Ragweed pollen is much lighter and does get wind-borne. The reason that goldenrod gets the blame rather than the real culprit is that ragweed’s flowers are small and inconspicuous whereas goldenrod, which just so happens to bloom at the exact same time as ragweed, has these masses of eye-catching blooms.
WOULD YOU PUT IT IN YOUR GARDEN?
The Brits do. I was very surprised the first time I spotted goldenrod planted with care for maximum show in a formal English garden. This plant is considered such a common weed here that it took a moment for me to see it as anything other than a mistake. But that’s not to say it’s a common plant in English gardens. I think that might be because it’s considered invasive in Europe and Asia.
In Canada, though, you should still be careful if you decide to give goldenrod a try in your own garden. It can spread aggressively by way of rhizomes. Contain its growth (literally) by either growing your plant in a pot submerged in the ground or as a a showy ‘thriller’ in a container planting (see Solidago Little Lemon, below).
I’m not sure I’m ready to grow poor, misunderstood goldenrods in my garden. And that’s a shame because goldenrod is an important source of food for a wide variety of insects, including beneficial wasps, beetles, and bees. Honey bees collect the nectar from the late-blooming goldenrod to stock up just before winter. Some bees use the pollen to provide for late-season nests.
Will you defy your neighbours’ sneers and give good-guy goldenrod a place to grow in your garden?