Wild Ones   Going for the GOLDenrod: Praise for the Stalwart Solidagos  
By C. Colston Burrell

A flower market is the last place I would think to look for wildflowers. I do however, take a peek whenever I pass one, just to see what is new and interesting. On a quiet canal in Amsterdam a few years ago, I found an unexpected treat in an unassuming stand: goldenrods. Amongst the bright spires of delphiniums, plumes of astilbes, glowing sunflowers, and requisite rosebuds were great bunches of glorious goldenrods. Europeans have long had a taste for the flower that captures the rays of the autumn sun. The monastery Lecelle de San Francesco, built where St. Francis went for retreat in the 1200s, also harbored goldenrods. Great clumps of European goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) grace the parterres of the physic garden built to tame the precipitous slope of this Tuscan valley.

Sollidago rigidaThe wealth of the world’s goldenrods, more than 100 species, lies in North America, not Europe. The meadows in Virginia where I grew up were filled with goldenrods. I could easily find 10 species without even trying. I guess that’s where my obsession started. In my first woodland garden, I could only grow a few shade tolerant species. When I moved to the Midwest, I discovered a dozen new species, and had the sun I needed to grow them. Now that I garden on 10 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I have limitless opportunities for exploring this beautiful genus.

American gardeners are just realizing the merits of the versatile goldenrods. Despite a long history of human use for dyes and medicine, goldenrods have been largely ignored as garden plants. Their allure comes from their late flowering season. Goldenrods are eminently garden worthy, but only a few species have made it into mainstream horticulture. They carry the garden from summer into autumn, joined by asters, sunflowers, and turtleheads in fall’s final tapestry. They are also long-lasting cut flowers.

Beauty, variety, and wildlife value notwithstanding, unfounded fears of allergy have kept American gardens at arm’s length. Fear not. The culprit is ragweed, an annual that shares the wild places favored by goldenrods. The air-borne pollen of ragweed is a potent allergen. Goldenrods are insect pollinated, so pollen only leaves a flower with the help of a bee or butterfly. A recent study proffered that goldenrod was an allergen, based on non-clinical tests. My allergist assures me that goldenrod is not allergenic. The fact that allergists do not even test for goldenrod allergies vindicates them. Now that you are in on the secret, embrace the goldenrods as garden beauties and cut flowers with staying power.

Goldenrods belong to the aster family (Asteraceae). The name Solidago is derived from the Latin solido, to make whole, referring to the plant’s use as a medicinal tonic. Throughout time, the flowers, leaves, and roots have been used to make tea, to relieve the pain of bee stings, to cure sore throats, to stop bleeding, and to dissolve kidney stones. A beautiful yellow dye is also derived from the flowers. Goldenrods have the characteristic composite flowers called heads, which consist of a central disk and a sparse whorl of marginal rays. The disk is a composite of many small flowers that lack petals. The ray flowers, or florets, look like individual petals, but each is an entire flower with full reproductive capacity. Together they form a composite head, which gave rise to the now obsolete name of the family, Compositae. The flowers of goldenrod are bright lemon to butter yellow, not gold.

Goldenrods are fail-proof garden plants. Few perennials are as easy to grow. As a general rule, they tolerate a wide range of soil and moisture conditions. The majority of species require full sun or light shade for best performance. Native habitat is the best clue to preferred garden habitat, though most species exhibit wide latitude in cultivation. Evenly moist, loamy soil suits them well, and most are indifferent to pH. Established plants are drought tolerant. Every garden has a place for at least one species. I warn you though, once you start, its hard to stop mining for gold.

Species descriptions
Solidago speciosaGoldenrods are a varied group of plants that share the common characteristic of showy heads of bright, lemon yellow flowers. Most goldenrod species grow from a woody crown called a caudex. In old plants, the caudex can be quite large. Thin, fibrous roots radiate from the center of the crown like spokes of a wheel. Most wetland species are shallow rooted runners, while those of droughty sites and prairies form tight crowns with roots that probe deeply into the soil for moisture. The tight, restrained growth of these clump-forming upland species makes them ideal garden subjects. They form tidy rosettes of lance-shaped to spatulate leaves. Some plants are stoloniferous, forming large colonies in meadows, prairies, and wetlands. They grow from creeping, pencil-sized rhizomes with lateral, fibrous roots that radiate like the legs of a centipede. I do not include these species in my garden because they can be invasive in small spaces. The clump forming species are more suited to wild gardens, meadows, and prairies. Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Wildflowers groups goldenrods based on the shape of the inflorescence, and I think this is a useful tool for separating the species. The main categories are plume, tree or elm-branched, club-like, wand-like, and flat-topped. The plumed inflorescences are the most familiar. They have branched, often one-sided pyramidal clusters with flowers gathered on the upper side of the branches. The wand-flowered species have narrow, branched panicles with small leaves or leaf-like bracts throughout the inflorescence along the nodes.

The bloom stalks elongate throughout the summer and provide a show even before they bloom, as the inflorescences unfurl and the buds begin to color from rich green to chartreuse. The real excitement comes from the fully open flowers, however. The shape of the inflorescence and the size of the flowers is quite variable, depending on the species.

A Few Goldenrods for Sun

Solidago juncea (early goldenrod)
Found in sandy, acidic soils in meadows, savannas, open woods, rock outcroppings, and seashores from Nova Scotia and Minnesota, south to Georgia, and Missouri. Plants do not tolerate too much lime in the soil, and are hopeless in alkaline clay.

GoldenrodSolidago nemoralis (gray goldenrod)
Grows naturally in sandy, loamy, or clay soils in meadows, prairies, open woods, roadsides, rock outcroppings, and eroded slopes from Nova Scotia and Alberta, south to Florida and Texas.

Solidago odora (sweet goldenrod)
Found in open woods, meadows, clearings, and dunes from Vermont and Ontario, south to Florida and Texas.

Solidago ohiensis (Ohio goldenrod)
Found in bogs, wet meadows, and prairies from Ontario and Minnesota, south to New York and Missouri.

Solidago rigida (stiff goldenrod)
Native to dry or moist gravel or black soil prairies, meadow, clearing, and roadsides from Connecticut to Saskatchewan, south to Georgia and New Mexico.

Solidago rugosa (rough stemmed goldenrod)
Found in open woods, meadows, and old fields from Newfoundland and Michigan, south to Florida and Texas.

Solidago sempervirens (seaside goldenrod)
Found in coastal dunes and open woods from Newfoundland to Florida and Texas, south to tropical America.

Solidago spacelata (creeping goldenrod)
Found in open rocky woods, clearings, and on roadsides in limy soils from Virginia and Indiana, south to Georgia and Alabama.

Solidago speciosa (showy goldenrod)
Grows in average sandy or rocky soil on outcroppings and in open woods, savannas, meadows, and dry prairies from New England to Minnesota and Wyoming, south to Georgia and Texas.

Solidago uliginosa (bog goldenrod)
Found in bogs, wet meadows, ditches, and low woods from Newfoundland and Minnesota, south to New Jersey and Indiana and the mountains south to North Carolina.

Two Goldenrods for Shade

Solidago caesia
(wreath goldenrod or blue-stemmed goldenrod)

Found in open woods, woodland borders and clearings from Nova Scotia and Wisconsin, south to Florida and Texas.

Solidago flexicaulis (zigzag goldenrod)
Grows in rich deciduous woods, clearings, and roadsides from Nova Scotia and North Dakota, south to Georgia and Arkansas.


Excerpted from an article originally
published in Fine Gardening; reprinted with permission.

Author and avid plantsman C. Colston Burrell has spent a lifetime studying native plants in the wild and in the garden. He gardens on 10 acres of woodlands and meadows in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. His books include A Gardener’s Encyclopedia of Perennials (Rodale Press, 1997) and Perennial Combinations, Rodale Press, 1999). Cole is a Wild Ones Partner at Large, Virginia.

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Updated: May 05, 2009.