Goldenrod — is it a weed? Or is it a beloved wild flower? Depending on who you talk to, perhaps it’s both. This native North American plant grows in one form or another in every state in the contiguous United States and in Alaska. In fact, it’s so common that it’s understandable why many people think of it strictly as a weed. But what a weed! Goldenrod is an important source of nectar and pollen for pollinators of all kinds as well as shelter for the larvae of beneficial insects. This bee and butterfly magnet tolerates two of our region’s gardening challenges — deer and clay soil.
Here, in this part of Virginia, the Albemarle County Native Plant Database lists seven varieties of goldenrod that are native to this area. These are only a few of the approximately 38 varieties that are native to Virginia. Depending on the variety, they start appearing in the landscape as early as July and bloom until November. They’re hard to miss. Most varieties of goldenrod range in height and width from three to four feet on average. While Rough-Stemmed Goldenrod is fairly diminutive at 2 feet in height, its relative, Sweet Goldenrod, can reach 5 feet. Taller yet, Canada Goldenrod can reach 6 feet in height while the tallest of the bunch, Giant Goldenrod, can climb to 8.2 feet in height, according to the United States Department of Agriculture plant database. For an idea of just how tall this plant is, check out the accompanying photo of Piedmont Master Gardener Dorothy Tompkins standing next to a clump of it in her garden.
Commonly seen growing in fields and along country roads, this wild flower has long been ignored by serious gardeners until recent years. With the introduction of hybrid forms of the plant, which are smaller and better behaved, Goldenrod often appears in home gardens as well as in public botanical gardens. A member of the Solidago genus (pronounced sole-ih-DAY-go), goldenrod is commonly used in European gardens more so than in North American gardens. As Allan M. Armitage points out in his Herbaceous Perennial Plants, A Treatise on their Identification, Culture, and Garden Attributes (Third Edition), Europeans developed goldenrod hybrids for the commercial cut flower market using North American natives as parents. However, as American gardeners become more interested in native plantings, goldenrod is now viewed less as a weed and more as a wild flower worthy of consideration in the ornamental garden. Of the more than 100 species of goldenrod within the Solidago genus, most of the commonly grown ones have feathery, branching clusters of brilliant yellow flowers which dance in the breeze and add movement to the landscape.
Many garden centers in the mid-Atlantic offer Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ as a staple of the autumn perennial trade. ‘Fireworks’ features generous plumes of small, bright yellow flowers that grow in dense panicles at the ends of stiff alternate-leaved stems. It blooms from September to October in full sun and ranges in height from 36 to 42 inches. While it does well in average, well-drained soil, it can tolerate wetter soil than other Goldenrod cultivars, which makes it a good candidate for rain gardens. Deadheading the spent flower clusters encourages additional bloom. ‘Fireworks’ produces some creeping roots. If the plant spreads beyond the space allotted to it, don’t despair. The excess pulls up very easily. To control growth, divide the plant every two to three years. If you’re not familiar with ‘Fireworks,’ take note of a beautiful clump of it growing on the grounds of the Jefferson-Madison Library branch on Gordon Street in Charlottesville.
Another popular cultivar is ‘Golden Fleece,’ which blooms from August through September. This East Coast native goldenrod (Solidago sphaecelata) is more diminutive than the species, topping out at about 20 inches and spreading to about 3 feet.
Goldenrod is susceptible to rust, which is characterized by bronze pustules on stems and lower sides of leaves. To either minimize or avoid the problem, make sure the plant has plenty of air circulation and is sited in full sun. While it will tolerate some shade, it can become floppy and may need to be staked.
Many people believe goldenrod is the source of autumn hay fever and allergy symptoms. You’ll be relieved to know that this is not the case. The pollen of goldenrod is sticky and is not wind borne. The true cause of those fall sniffles and sneezes is the wind-borne pollen of plants such as ragweed.
While some people categorize goldenrod as a weed, many of us regard it is a beloved wild flower. The state of Kentucky, for example, likes it well enough that it named Solidago altissima as its state flower in 1926. This is just one of 30 species of goldenrod that grace the Kentucky fields and byways. Another species of goldenrod, Solidago gigantea, or giant goldenrod, has been the state flower of Nebraska since 1895.
Albemarle County Plant Database available on-line at http://www.albemarle.org/nativeplants/.
Armitage, Allan M., Herbaceous Perennial Plants, A treatise on Their Identification, Culture, and Garden Attributes (third Edition), 2008.
DiSabato-Aust, Tracy, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, 2006.
Hodgson, Larry, Perennials for Every Purpose, 2000.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Plants Database available on-line at http://plants.usda.gov/.
Weakley, Alan S.; Ludwig, J. Christopher; and Townsend, John E., Flora of Virginia, 2012.