|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.
The 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
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.
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
final tapestry. They are also long-lasting
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.
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.
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
Goldenrods 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.
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
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
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
odora (sweet goldenrod)
Found in open woods, meadows,
clearings, and dunes from
Vermont and Ontario, south
to Florida and Texas.
ohiensis (Ohio goldenrod)
Found in bogs, wet meadows,
and prairies from Ontario
and Minnesota, south to New
York and Missouri.
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
Found in open woods, meadows,
and old fields from Newfoundland
and Michigan, south to Florida
sempervirens (seaside goldenrod)
Found in coastal dunes and
open woods from Newfoundland
to Florida and Texas, south
to tropical America.
spacelata (creeping goldenrod)
Found in open rocky woods,
clearings, and on roadsides
in limy soils from Virginia
and Indiana, south to Georgia
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
uliginosa (bog goldenrod)
bogs, wet meadows, ditches,
and low woods from Newfoundland
and Minnesota, south to New
Jersey and Indiana and the
mountains south to North
Two Goldenrods for Shade
or blue-stemmed goldenrod)
Found in open woods, woodland
borders and clearings from
Nova Scotia and Wisconsin,
south to Florida and Texas.
flexicaulis (zigzag goldenrod)
Grows in rich deciduous woods,
clearings, and roadsides
from Nova Scotia and North
Dakota, south to Georgia
Excerpted from an article originally
published in Fine Gardening; reprinted
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
Rodale Press, 1999). Cole is
a Wild Ones Partner at Large, Virginia.
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