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The Truth about Goldenrod

by Ray Allen

No hay fever, and lots of wonderful surprises.  Over 25 years ago, when we began gardening with wildflowers, I learned a lot about goldenrod.  In those days, we tended a three-acre meadow at our Wildflower Farm, after we turned our hobby (wildflowers) into a business.  After a few years, we had over 35,000 visitors during summer and fall, so when you write signs and information for that many people, you have to be correct.  Since then, I've built up a big library of good wildflower and native plant books, given speeches, written articles, and most of all learned by gardening with wildflowers.  And I'm here to tell you that goldenrod is interesting.

From the very beginning in wildflower gardening, Goldenrod is one wildflower that can't be ignored.  It usually appears in your wild garden whether you want it or not, or if you plant it, you soon have more than you ever wanted.  But it's not just a roadside weed like Queen Anne's Lace and some others; goldenrod has a fascinating story.

First of all, unlike a lot of our "weeds," it's native.  And in fact, the species Solidago, or Goldenrod, is a large family of tough, perennial No. American native flowers that are more diverse than you think. 

About Hay Fever.  In short, it's an Old Wive's Tale.  Goldenrod does not cause hay fever.  It simply got that bum rap since it blooms at the same time as the real culprit--ragweed.

The Roadside Goldenrods, Invasive Natives.  Everybody knows the common mustard-colored meadow plumes like the photo at left (from one of my favorite websites,, but not everybody knows that there are scores of species of these plumes...various shapes, heights, etc.  (If you want to identify the ones in your area, all you'll need is one of the popular Wildlfower Identification Guides, like the Audubon Guide or Peterson Guide, available everywhere.)  You can plant these in your garden, and you'll have magnificent fall color every year, but you'll also have more and more goldenrod every year.  Be sure you plant them where you can contain their spread.

Because most goldenrods are incredibly invasive.  Did you think that word applied only to pest imports?  Think again. Everybody knows certain natives can be wildly; it's simply their nature.  Goldenrods and cattails are two great examples.  But that's no reason to ban them.

Woodland Goldenrods?  Who knew?  But yes, several species are shade-lovers.  With common names like Zig-Zag Goldenron and Wreath Goldenrod, these smaller, sort of spindly plants light up the forest floor in many areas in August and September, when there is little other bloom in the woods.  We had a huge patch of these in our woodland that grew with a solid carpet of Great White Trillium.  The area was a drift of snow white in May, and a sparkling shaded meadow of gold in August.  The woodland types don't spread and crowd other plants like the tall roadside types do.

And the diversity doesn't end there.  One species, with a paler color, is actually called "Silverod."

Goldenrod in Gardens?  Absolutely! You can transplant the common natives into your perennial garden, but if you do, they'll take over in no time, so it's better to buy a few of the fancier hybrids at the garden center or by mailorder.  Did I hear someone gasp,  "Goldenrod Hybrids?"  That always happens.  But yes, the Solidagos are one of the best examples of how the Europeans have made much of many of the North American wildflowers we ignore as weeds.  Years ago, European hybridizers, mostly in Germany, became fascinated with our tall late-blooming goldenrods, and took them home and changed them.  Cultivars like "Golden Fleece" and "Fireworks" have been around a long time, and there are newer ones like "Little Lemon",  only about 12-16" tall.  All the nursery hybrids are "well-behaved", which means they won't take over your whole yard like their country cousins.  Instead, they'll add brilliant color late in the season when all your fancy perennials are finished.

Of course, if you're talking about a wildflower meadow, you must have them--either the natives or the hybrids, depending on how much work you want to do.   Their fall color, along with perennial sunflowers plus the blues and whites of native asters is essential to a fall wildflower display.

Magnificent for cutting.  Last but not least, goldenrods are not just a flower that is "good for cutting." They are spectacular for cutting.  Here's why.  Most of them decorate themselves with plume-shaped sprays of tiny flowers when they bloom.  And as you notice along the roadside, these pointed plumes bend elegantly this way and that in a healthy stand of the species in bloom.  Well, it'll be the same in your vase.  Collect an armload of these big wild beauties when they're fresh and new (Nobody will mind, and they're even easy to pick.  Even the tallest ones snap off with your hand.  No shears needed.) and put them in a vase. 

Then put in some cosmos, late roses, lilies, purple coneflowers (like in the arrangement at the top) or any other colorful blooms you have in fall, and you'll see.  Lush, glowing goldenrod is probably the best "filler" there is for flower arrangements.  Unlike baby's breath or others, it doesn't just add body to the arrangement.  It adds elegant plumes, pointing left, right, and straight up in the middle.  The big floppy pyramids of color literally arrange themselves.  And in no time, you'll have a big beautiful arrangement everyone will love.

So the next time you notice a whole roadside turing yellow with goldenrod, don't ignore them.  Notice the beauty and elegance of the individual flower heads.  You'll be looking at one of the grand groups of native American flowers.

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