On a recent trip to a local drugstore, I observed antihistamines that are STILL being sold with an with an image of goldenrod on the front of the box. It was a reminder of how pervasive the idea is that goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is the cause of late summer and fall allergies. However, this is a misconception— the true hay fever culprit is ragweed (Ambrosia spp.), another native plant that flowers at the same time as goldenrod and often grows alongside it in roadsides and fields.
Ragweed goes unnoticed in the landscape because its drab green flowers are not very eye-catching compared to goldenrod. But these flowers offer a clue as to why ragweed triggers allergies. It is wind-pollinated, so it does not need showy flowers to attract insect pollinators. When ragweed blooms, its antigen-heavy pollen is released into the air, where it travels to reach other ragweed plants and can easily be inhaled by humans.
In contrast, the spectacular yellow flowers of goldenrod evolved to attract insect pollinators, who transport its pollen from plant to plant. Since goldenrod pollen is not airborne, it would only affect an allergy sufferer if that person stuck his or her nose into the flower and took a big sniff.
We want to correct this misunderstanding because the goldenrods comprise a diverse genus with tremendous horticultural potential. There are more than 20 species of Solidago native to New England, and they are adapted to grow in a wide range of soil and sun conditions, from sand dunes to moist, open woodlands. This is also one of the very best native perennials for biodiversity. According to Doug Tallamy's research, the genus Solidago supports over 100 species of moths and butterflies, and the Xerces Society rates it as having high pollinator value, attracting many native bees, wasps, beetles, ants, and flies. So we encourage you to give a nod to goldenrod— add it to your pollinator gardens, and let people know that it is a friend, not a foe.
So Many Goldenrods to Choose From, So Little Time!
Our native goldenrods come in a wealth of shapes, sizes, and growth habits, giving the avid gardener many options to select the perfect one for their landscape. At left, sweet goldenrod thrives in sun and sandy soils. A mid-size goldenrod at 2-4 ft, it generally isn’t a prolific spreader, blooms in mid-summer before other goldenrod species, and has fragrant, anise-scented leaves.
Wrinkeleaf goldenrod, at center, is a common species in fields and along woodland trails. It is happy in a wide range of soil and light conditions, from full sun to part shade, and blooms in arching rays of flowers that evoke the name of the popular cultivar, ‘Fireworks.’ One of the larger goldenrods at 4-6 ft, it spreads by rhizomes and fits best in a landscape where it can take up some space.
Zig-zag goldenrod, at right, takes its name from the shape of its stem. This is the most shade tolerant goldenrod, and one of the smaller ones, typically less than 3 ft tall. It prefers woodland settings with fertile, loamy soil, where it can slowly spread as a groundcover. Blooming in early fall, it is spectacular paired with woodland asters.