By: Elisabeth Ginsburg
It is hard to think of goldenrod (Solidago spp.), as something precious and special when it is so extraordinarily ubiquitous. Native to all of North America, it bursts into bloom in late summer and early fall, lining field edges, roadsides and just about every sunny space where it can gain a foothold. In its native land it is often damned with faint or non-existent praise. Even worse, it is unjustly damned as the source of pesky, end-of-summer hay fever attacks.
Ragweed, goldenrod’s seasonal fellow traveler, is the true cause of most late-season allergies. Ragweed is a stealth allergen. It’s so visually nondescript with its humdrum green flowers that people overlook it in their quest to point accusing fingers at goldenrod’s bright plumes. Like many hay-fever-trigger plants, ragweed is wind pollinated. It relies on the breeze to complete its pollinating chores, sending tiny pollen granules flying through the air where they meet up with sensitive human beings. Goldenrod, on the other hand, is pollinated by bees and other insects, meaning its pollen never becomes airborne and causes us no harm.
Common and condemned, goldenrod had to go all the way to Europe to lose its bad reputation. Europeans, untroubled by hay-fever concerns, common origins, and supposed coarse appearances, fell in love. When plant people on the other side of the Atlantic got hold of the winsome field flower, that love translated into hybridizing. The result of international travel and human-initiated plant hanky-panky is that gardeners have the option of getting their goldenrod two ways—wild or bred into garden-worthy forms.
Goldenrod’s lineage makes it a natural for the home garden. At first glance the resemblance is hard to see, but Solidago is in the daisy family, Asteraceae. Each lush flower panicle is made of up of many miniature golden daisies that can be seen up close. Loaded with pollen, they attract bees, butterflies, and many other insects. If you have ever eaten wildflower honey collected in fall, you have most likely tasted the autumnal richness of goldenrod.
In the garden, these hardy perennials ask for little. Established plants can tolerate dry spells in fine fashion, and some species are tolerant of moist soils. Sunny space is ideal for the plants, although some will also prosper in light shade, sporting somewhat fewer flowers per stem. Anyone familiar with field goldenrod, which is frequently, but not always, Solidago canadensis, knows that it can grow 3 to 6 feet high and forms large clumps due to its vigorous, spreading root systems. Clearly this is not ideal for all gardens. Fortunately, breeders have come up with more civilized, compact garden goldenrods that are perfect for small spaces or containers.
One of those compact varieties is Solidago ‘Little Lemon’, which reaches only 12 to 18 inches tall. It looks cute in seasonal containers, but this perennial should be replanted along a border edge before frost descends. The popular ‘Crown of Rays’, which grows 18 to 24 inches tall, is another compact form to consider. For a medium-tall variety, try the popular Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’, which grows 3 to 4 feet tall and spreads less aggressively than some wild forms. The winter seed heads of all goldenrod add garden beauty by attracting the lovely, yellow-feathered goldfinch.
To make potted goldenrod thrive, fill your chosen container with Fafard Natural and Organic Potting Soil. This premium mix is full of the kind of rich organic materials that a goldenrod would chose for itself, if it were able. Amend garden soils with Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost before planting.
The word “Solidago” comprises two Latin words that mean “to make whole”. “Solidago” shares a common root with the English word “solidarity”. This seems perfect for goldenrod, which finds solidarity with a variety of plants that bloom at the same time. The most prominent of them is the blue-purple Symphiotrichum novae-angliae (New England aster). Mums, especially those in burnt orange or dark red shades, also make good companions. In the fields, the waving golden wands harmonize with the last of summer’s true blue chicory, not to mention purple ironweed (Vernonia spp.) and lots of airy native grasses.
Goldenrod is a great garden plant, but it also makes an excellent cut flower. Best of all, since no one has ever been inclined to pick ragweed and add it to a vase, you can enjoy goldenrod’s sunny fall flowers indoors without resorting to allergy medicine or the tissue box.