Goldenrod has gotten a bad rap, and undeservedly so.
The fall bloomer often gets blamed for autumn allergies, when the real culprit is ragweed. What’s more, some people can see it only as a weedy wildflower, not an asset to a garden.
It’s time to change that thinking.
Goldenrod has much to offer in the landscape. It provides a blaze of brilliant yellow at a time when most plants are fading. It attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects, making it good for our gardens as well as our planet. And like other native plants, it can do just fine without our help, thank you very much.
Mary Slingluff likes the plant so much that she grows it at her bed and breakfast, Avalon Gardens near Chardon, and sells the plants at the nursery associated with the inn.
This time of year, her guests often comment that goldenrod makes them sneeze — so often, in fact, that Slingluff has gotten tired of correcting them. “I don’t even bother anymore,” she said with a laugh.
It’s a common mistake, said Dr. Bela Faltay, chief of allergy and immunology at Akron General Medical Center.
Goldenrod and ragweed are close cousins, so people who are allergic to one are typically allergic to the other, he said. But the properties of their pollen grains put them on opposite ends of the hay fever misery scale.
Ragweed is wind-pollinated, which means it has pollen grains that are tiny enough to be blown by the wind from one plant to another — and unfortunately, to people’s noses. Faltay said ragweed pollen can travel as far as 30 miles, and it’s easily breathed in.
Goldenrod, on the other hand, is pollinated by insects. Its pollen grains are big, heavy and almost Velcro-like, designed to stick to visiting insects and be carried to other plants. The pollen grains fall to the ground rather than wafting in the air.
While Faltay said you might breathe in some goldenrod pollen if you were very close to the plants, normally people aren’t exposed to it that way. And while the scent of goldenrod might produce a sneeze, that’s not a true allergic reaction, he said.
Garden designer Sabrena Schweyer wishes people would get the message.
They’re missing a great plant, she said. “It has a lot of versatility. It’s native, and it’s showy.”
Goldenrod, or Solidago, has more than 100 species, most of them native to North America, according to information from Chicago Botanic Garden. Twenty-two of those species grow naturally in Ohio, the most widespread of which is the Canada goldenrod that grows in places like fields and ditches.
But while we’re used to seeing goldenrod in sunny spots, different types like different conditions. There are species of goldenrod that thrive in the partial shade of the woods, in bogs and in salty areas near the ocean. There are goldenrods that grow less than a foot tall and some that stretch as high as 4 to 6 feet.
Because goldenrod is a native plant, it’s adapted to our growing conditions. It’s subject to few disease and insect problems, and it doesn’t need fertilizer or fuss to thrive.
It’s also an important contributor to wildlife habitats. Goldenrod attracts butterflies, bees, praying mantises and other beneficial insects, which use the plant for food or reproduction and help to spread its pollen.
For that reason, “it’s essential to get them [goldenrods] into our gardens, I think,” said Schweyer, who specializes in sustainable gardening in her work as a principal with the Akron landscape design and development firm Salsbury-Schweyer Inc.
That’s not to say all goldenrod is ideal in a landscape. Schweyer said Canada goldenrod, in particular, can be “a thug,” spreading rampantly and quickly getting out of control.
Ohio goldenrod is another aggressive grower, but Schweyer likes it in a prairie setting. Its tough roots are good at breaking through clay soil, she said.
She particularly likes Fireworks goldenrod (Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’), which grows 2 to 3 feet tall and has gracefully arching plumes. It’s also resistant to deer, a quality not all goldenrods share.
Plant Fireworks in large, attention-getting blocks, she recommended. If it’s too spotty, “it can look like a weed,” she said.
Solar Cascade (S. shortii ‘Solar Cascade’) is another of her favorites, a compact plant with attractive foliage that can take full sun to part shade. She also likes Golden Fleece (S. sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’), which grows a bit shorter and works well as a tall groundcover.
Favorites for dryer spots are zigzag and sweet goldenrods (S. flexicaulis and S. odora), both of which can grow in part shade, and showy and stiff goldenrods (S. speciosa and S. rigida), which are suited for full sun.
Taller goldenrods lose their lower leaves and have what Schweyer calls “ugly ankles,” so she likes to hide the unattractive lower portion with companion plants in front and on either side. Often she’ll cut back the taller goldenrods by half in late May or the first few days of June to stunt their height and produce tidier plants.
Schweyer trims back the previous year’s growth in spring, which Slingluff said is also a good time to pull out emerging plants if they’re growing in places you don’t want them. But other than that, most goldenrods require little care, they said.
“They don’t require coddling, like so many perennials,” Schweyer said.
What’s not to love?
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.