There are at least 130 species of goldenrod in the United States alone and every state except Hawaii has at least one native species. A goldenrod species is the state flower of Nebraska and Kentucky, the state wildflower of South Carolina, the state herb of Delaware and goldenrod is featured on Kentucky’s flag. Proponents highlight goldenrod’s ubiquity, adaptability, hardiness and pollinator-friendly long-lasting blooms. Critics see a rogue weed in need of suppression, a plant with a tendency to dominate the local plant community to the detriment of other species. Goldenrod proponents and critics don’t even agree on whether goldenrod is good or poor forage for either livestock or wild grazing animals or whether goldenrod is valuable or detrimental to the prairie ecosystem.
Goldenrod, a widely distributed native wildflower with visually distinctive yellow blooms, is hardly an enigma. Why don’t people agree on something as apparently straightforward as goldenrod?
Traditional medicinal use:
Goldenrod appears to have been used as something of a cure-all by a wide range of Native Americans on both coasts and in the interior (Moerman, 2009). All parts of the plants, including roots, leaves and flowers, were used. With some exceptions, the species of goldenrod used seems mostly related to what goldenrod species were locally available. Treatment of skin diseases, open sores, irritations, or burns was the most widespread traditional medical application for goldenrod whether the treatment took the form of a wash made from an infusion of leaves and/or flowers, a poultice of moistened, pulverized roots or dried leaf powder. Fever reduction was another common application along with a range of pediatric and/or gynecological uses, such as baths for newborns or to ease difficult labor. Sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora), also called anise-scented goldenrod or fragrant goldenrod, is a goldenrod species that was not used interchangeably with other goldenrod species and prized in particular for its smell and taste. Interestingly, a medical application of sweet goldenrod is that it was used to flavor other medicinals (Jepson, 1993).
North American is the center of goldenrod biodiversity and there are some goldenrods native to South America, Europe and Asia. Interestingly, goldenrod has a place in the traditional medical practices of both Europe and Asia.
The genus name Solidago is from Latin
solidus/solido (whole) and ago (to make) meaning to “make whole or heal”. In addition to medicinal use, both Native Americans and the early settlers used goldenrod for dye.
Goldenrod (genus Solidago) is a tall, herbaceous perennial best known for late-season, prolific golden blooms. Goldenrod flowers are bright yellow with individual flowers usually less than an inch in length. Single stems grow many flowers and the arrangement of the flowers can also vary. Flower distribution shapes can range from curved, one-sided spikes at the tops of the plants, to tight, flat-topped clusters to little bunches of flowers growing along the stem. (Danielson, 2010). Goldenrods in general are late bloomers and flowers appear from late summer into early fall. Leaf shape can sometimes be used for species determination and goldenrods tend to have lance-shaped leaves, longer than they are wide. All goldenrod plants have alternate leaves and generally yellow-green foliage. Some believe that the crushed leaves have a distinctive scent that can be useful for genus-level plant identification. Goldenrods are notoriously tricky to identify at the species level. Multiple species of goldenrod have been included in this garden because unless one has in mind a specific goldenrod use, like selecting the species whose leaves make the best tasting tea, its probably more useful to think about this plant at the genus level. Any species of goldenrod can be employed medicinally or for cut flowers or for making dye but the degree of effectiveness for any particular use will vary by species.
Most indications are that, in general, in North America, goldenrod is wildlife-friendly plant. However, some North American goldenrod species now spreading through Europe and Asia appear to be degrading local biodiversity (Platt, 2016).
The distinct stems of blue stemmed goldenrod are purplish in color. Blue stemmed goldenrod is one of the most shade-tolerant goldenrods and is more likely to be found growing in the local woods than in local fields.
In fairness, we may have Canada goldenrod and not tall goldenrod growing this garden. This is a common wildflower in the Finger Lakes area which aggressively claims territory. It’s difficult to tell tall goldenrod and Canada goldenrod apart.
Showy goldenrod is a late bloomer with hairless or nearly hairless stems and leaves. Since goldenrod is generally late-blooming, a late-blooming goldenrod should provide one of the last sources of nectar available before winter. Picture complements of Prairie Moon Nursery.
Goldenrod is still used for tea and as an herbal remedy although not to the extent that it was utilized by traditional cultures. Goldenrod is also considered a high-quality cut flower and used as a filler for flower arrangements. Cut goldenrod blooms can last for over week. Some beekeepers in the US midwest attest that the nectar from the combination of goldenrods and asters is the very best and very sweetest of any produced during the year (Helzer, 2010, comments).
Stuff Almost Nobody Knows:
(for the perpetually curious)
Some coincidences are so incredible that it’s difficult to believe they are simply coincidence.
Such is the case when a natural poison is found growing right near a natural antidote. Some examples of this are known and it seems likely there are others not yet identified. For example, in the jungles of southern Mexico and central America grows a tree called the metopium brownei, known locally as chechém or black-sap poisonwood, which causes a blistering rash upon contact with skin. Often growing nearby is a tree called Bursera simaruba, known by locals as chaka, a bioactive species which, when processed correctly, acts as an antidote to chechém (Peck, 2016). Poison ivy is a common troublemaker in eastern North American but is, remarkably, often found growing with spotted jewelweed, an annual plant with orange-gold flowers which the Native Americans used as a poison ivy remedy, a remedy which many modern outdoors enthusiasts also testify is effective. The death-cap mushroom, native to Eurasia, has a recently discovered natural antidote derived from silybum marianum, a flower with an overlapping native range (Peck, 2016).
Goldenrod is a partner in a slightly less dramatic co-located poison / antidote dynamic. The surprise to many is that the goldenrod is the antidote in this relationship, not the poison. Goldenrod is not the significant source of allergies that many in North America believe it to be; even if someone were to be allergic to goldenrod pollen, they would be unlikely to inhale the relatively heavy particles that tend to be transported by pollinators, not wind. Much more likely to be responsible for the onset of hay fever-like symptoms is ragweed, which, in the eastern US, tends to grow where goldenrod grows. Ragweed pollen, a common allergen, is a light, wind-transported pollen. Coincidentally, some traditional medicinal applications of goldenrod target common allergy symptoms, such as goldenrod as a decongestant or goldenrod for upper respiratory system support (Blankespoor, 2017).
We don’t claim exceptional insight into whether the occasional geographic overlap of plant-delivered sting and relief is a function of coincidence, design, obscure biology or something else. We do suggest that the enigmatic goldenrod is a fitting reminder that we don’t know as much as we think we do. In 2002, a term, the “illusion of explanatory depth”, was coined by psychology professor Frank Keil and his graduate student Leonid Rozenblit to explain the fact that most people feel they understand the world in far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do. They proved this was true by asking people whether they understood common things, like a cell phone or a sewing machine, and then upon confirmation of understanding, asking those same people explain exactly how these common things work. Most failed.
We have failed to definitely characterize goldenrod as friend or foe, medicine, placebo or allergen, invasive or supportive. We don’t know if there is any significance associated with its tendency to co-locate with ragweed. In some cases, we can’t even decide whether some varieties of goldenrod should be even considered members of genus Solidago. Our consensus level of explanatory depth with respect to goldenrod seems astonishingly shallow. There seems to be agreement that the plant itself is a tall herbaceous perennial. What we don’t seem to understand is how goldenrod fits into a bigger picture. One Native American use of goldenrod was as “gambling medicine” (Moerman, 2009); perhaps we can use goldenrod now as a ward against unwarranted overconfidence in the depth of our own understanding.
Black Squirrel Farms strives for accuracy but everyone makes mistakes sometimes. We’re happy to update our information if needed. Please contact us if you spot an error or have a suggested edit, update or information inclusion. Help is welcome.
Blankespoor, J., 2017. “Goldenrod Benefits: The Bee’s Knees for Allergies, Sinus Infections and Urinary Tract Infections.” Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, July 25, 2017. https://chestnutherbs.com/goldenrod/
Danielson, B., 2010. “Goldenrod species display differences if you look closely.” Times Union, Sep. 26, 2010, https://www.timesunion.com/living/article/Goldenrod-species-display-differences-if-you-look-674730.php
Helzer, C., 2010. “Goldenrod – Pretty Flower or Evil Invader?”. The Prairie Ecologist, November 9, 2010, https://prairieecologist.com/2010/11/09/goldenrod-pretty-flower-or-evil-invader/
Jepson, J. 1993. “Herb to Know: Goldenrod”. Mother Earth Living, August / September, 1993., https://www.motherearthliving.com/plant-profile/goldenrod#ixzz1vbMDGEby
Moerman, D., 2009. “Native American Medicinal Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary”. Timber Press, Inc., Portland, Oregon.
Peck, J., 2016. “The Incredible Coincidence of a Poisonous Tree Growing Next to Its Antidote”. Atlas Obscura, June 6, 2016, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-incredible-coincidence-of-a-poisonous-tree-growing-next-to-its-antidote
Platt, J. 2016. “Invasive Goldenrod is Killing Europe’s Ants and Butterflies”. Scientific American, January 19, 2016, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/goldenrod/