Peering out through some valley fog, I see the goldenrods dominating along roadsides, fields, and the edges of every other habitat in the Northeast Kingdom.
Goldenrods are a very large family of plants; most are classified in the scientific category Solidago. Botanists have estimated over 120 goldenrod species globally, about 90 in North America, and almost 50 of those in the northeast. The goldenrods share their bloom season with blue or purple asters and the foliage of our deciduous trees, creating a glorious natural palette.
Here in the Kingdom, our goldenrods bloom through late summer and early autumn. They are tough perennial wildflowers, with deep, stout root systems, sturdy fibrous stems, and clusters of very small flowers that produce abundant pollen distributed primarily by bees, butterflies, and other insects.
Because these plants are so widely distributed, goldenrod pollen has long been regarded as the cause of hay fever, but goldenrod pollen is too heavy to be carried in the air. During the same season, Ragweeds produce much of the pollen that triggers those late summer allergies.
Hardy goldenrods of many species prosper in a range of habitats, from marshes to meadows, dry fields, and upland forests, and almost wherever there is sunshine. Many goldenrods develop yellow plumes of various sizes; some form flat-topped flower clusters (usually near water); and others produce wand-like single stems. Some local and familiar Goldenrod (G.) species include:
- Canada G., the earliest to bloom in the Northeast Kingdom, is a prominent species (4-6 ft.) with plumes of vivid yellow flowers; dense clusters of this plant are quite common.
- Tall G., a version of Canada G. with plumes that may reach 8 feet tall!
- Blue-stemmed G. (2-4 ft.) displays a single arched rod of leaves with tiny gold clusters at their axils (where a leaf is attached to a stem)..
- The charmingly named Zig-zag G. (about 2’) is so described because the leaves alternate on the sides of the stem with clusters of yellow blossoms in the leaf axils.
- SilverRod (2-3 ft.) is in the same family but is a grayish wand of small white flowers.
Goldenrods have been held to produce a wide range of services in traditional cultures. Indigenous people ate young, small leaves and seeds. They are not widely regarded food, but herbalists from Egypt to England, and the Chippewas, Californians, Zunis, and Alabamans have treated Solidagos as medicines. Many others used the roots and leaves for teas, including the original Blue Mountain Tea. In some cases, the mere appearance of goldenrod flowers has been a sign of luck or of an indicator of its place in the annual cyclical calendar. The presence of goldenrods across our continent has led to these honors: State Flower in Kentucky, Nebraska, South Carolina, Delaware, and temporarily in Alabama (later replaced by camellia).
The leaves of goldenrods contain a natural rubber substance, and the inventor Thomas Edison took it upon himself to experiment with this substance and develop the capacity he could grow goldenrods to harvest the rubber. Edison worked with Henry Ford about making rubber tires. Ford tried to do so in his Fordlandia in Brazil growing rubber trees, but Edison’s goldenrod rubber served the tire industry well into the 1940s. Though we don’t dine on goldenrods, several insects prey on them. Their pollinators include bumblebees, honeybees, wasps, flies, and butterflies, all of whom need the nourishment late in their summer season and find it in these yellow clusters.
In addition, below the blossoms, these plants’ most prominent features are the round or elliptical swells on their stems. These are galls that grow new stem tissue when stimulated by a penetrating, chewing fly depositing eggs in the stem where their larvae will develop and feed upon. The gall system continues: the fly larva grows and develops, but the larva itself is assaulted inside the gall by specific wasps that deposit their eggs that will become their larvae feeding on the fly larva. Or, the galls may be opened by woodpeckers seeking the larvae.
Watching the groves of goldenrods near our home, I thought late September is also an important season for migratory birds. In large hay fields, families of sparrows are quite common, but during this time, the Song Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows will have left the grasslands and have found good cover in the dense goldenrod stands. The sparrows, as well as a few bluebirds and warblers, have been perching on the top of these tall flowers in the sunshine and dining on visiting insects.
Down at the ground level though, voles, mice, moles, and shrews are busy in these dense groves, but like the sparrows and us, these little beasties don’t eat goldenrods. Familiar larger mammals, Whitetail Deer, never graze goldenrods but roam through their groves. Perhaps, they like the shelter more than the taste of yellow