Herb to Know: Goldenrod
By Jill Jepson
Goldenrod is a paradoxical plant. To North Americans, it is a roadside weed, evicted from gardens as an undesirable invader, yet Europeans cultivate it as an ornamental for the sunny border. It has long been scorned (though mistakenly) as the bane of allergy sufferers, yet people on three continents treat disease with it.
It is hardy enough to grow alongside city asphalt, yet it is elegant and graceful in the garden. John Muir described it in almost religious terms:
The fragrance, color, and form of the whole spiritual expression of Goldenrod are hopeful and strength-giving beyond any others I know. A single spike is sufficient to heal unbelief and melancholy.
The genus Solidago comprises between 60 and 130 species. Nearly all are known by the name goldenrod, though some also have such alternate names as woundwort, Aaron’s rod, heathen wound herb, and blue mountain tea. These members of the daisy or aster family (Compositae) generally have long, slender stems topped with plumes or tufts of tiny yellow or gold flowers. They grow in open woodlands and fields, especially where the soil is dry and sunlight plentiful.
Goldenrods owe their weedy reputation to their ruggedness and adaptability. They are opportunists, able to crop up where other plants cannot grow and to thrive despite drastic changes in the landscape. After a forest fire, the appearance of goldenrod plants is often one of the first signs that the woods are coming back to life. As cities engulf once-wild areas, goldenrods remain, sprouting along the sides of streets, at the edges of busy sidewalks, and in vacant lots.
Most of the goldenrod species are native to North America. Blue-stemmed goldenrod (S. caesia) and gray goldenrod (S. nemoralis) flourish in eastern forests, and early goldenrod (S. juncea) decorates dry open woods throughout eastern North America, its delicate blossoms well suited for drying and using in crafts. Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis) and showy goldenrod (S. speciosa) are graceful plants with arresting yellow blooms. Only a few goldenrod species are native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and one or two have been found in South America and the Azores. The European goldenrod (S. virgaurea), known as woundwort in England, is a robust perennial like other goldenrods and grows in open woodlands, favoring high ground and dry areas, but its flowers lack the glamour of many of its North American relatives. Though used for medicinal purposes, the plant is seldom cultivated.
Sweet goldenrod (S. odora) is the species most frequently seen in herb gardens. Its erect, sometimes sprawling stems have a slight purple cast, and its narrow, toothless leaves, held up to the light, reveal translucent dots. In the wild, this species grows up to 6 feet tall in thickets, along roadsides, and in open rocky woods in southeastern Canada and New England, south as far as Florida, and into eastern Texas.
In appearance, sweet goldenrod is unexceptional, its plumelike flower heads smaller and less conspicuous than those of other goldenrods. As if to make up for this lack of visual appeal, however, the leaves when crushed give off a gentle aniselike perfume, and they make a light, appealing beverage when infused in water; hence the plant’s alternate name blue mountain tea (see “The Patriotic Species”, page 46).
Myth and Lore
Like many other medicinal herbs, goldenrod has for centuries been the inspiration for legends and superstitions. According to one European tradition, goldenrod held in the hand will reveal hidden riches. Another claimed that the growing plant pointed to treasures of secret springs. Round swellings–galls–on some goldenrod plants are the work of a tiny fly that lays its eggs in the stem. New Englanders called them “rheumaty buds” and believed that if you carried one with you, it would ward off rheumatism for as long as the little grub inside remained alive.
On the other side of the globe, a Chinese legend explains how the medicinal uses of goldenrod became common knowledge. During the Sung dynasty, a man named Chi-nu was cutting down a ti plant when he saw a large snake and shot it with an arrow. The next day, he went to the same spot and found several young men in green robes crushing goldenrod with mortars and pestles. They told him that their master had been shot with an arrow by Chi-nu and that they were preparing medicine to heal the wound. They then explained the medicinal uses of goldenrod to Chi-nu and he, in turn, taught them to the world.
Practical jokers in North America once ground dried goldenrod flowers to make sneeze powder. This may be the origin of the long-standing, but erroneous, notion that goldenrod causes hay fever. Actually, the troublesome pollen blowing about when goldenrod is in bloom belongs to ragweed; goldenrod pollen is moist and sticky and is carried from flower to flower by insects.
Goldenrod For Health
Goldenrod’s reputation as a healing herb is reflected in its generic name: Solidago comes from the Latin word solidare, meaning “to make whole”. In this context, goldenrod only appears paradoxical. Goldenrod flowers have been used as a laxative and the seeds as a diarrhea remedy. Workers in fields of European goldenrod often experience skin irritation after as little as three hours’ exposure to the pollen, yet the plant is considered a remedy for chronic eczema. And considering the popular misconception that goldenrod pollen commonly causes summertime sneezing and sniffles, it’s ironic that European goldenrod has a long tradition as a catarrh remedy and is known to improve the general health of mucous membranes.
Native Americans made ample use of several species of goldenrod. Some tribes made an infusion of flowers and leaves for fevers and chest pains, and others used the leaves as a poultice to relieve the pain of rheumatism and neuralgia. The Meskwaki (a Minnesota Fox tribe) made a lotion from the blossoms for beestings and other painful swellings, while the Cherokee prepared a tea from one species to reduce fever and from another to treat bladder and kidney ailments. In the forests of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where goldenrod is plentiful, Delaware tribes prepared a tea from early goldenrod to combat diarrhea and chewed the fresh green leaves for fevers. Houma tribes used a decoction of gray goldenrod roots to treat jaundice.
Almost everywhere it grows, goldenrod has been used to treat disorders of the mouth and throat: the Zuñi chewed the blossoms and swallowed the juice slowly for sore throats, and the Alabama poulticed the roots on aching teeth, as did white settlers in the Ozarks. The English used it to treat sores in the throat and mouth and to tighten loose teeth. During Elizabethan times, goldenrod was imported to England from the Middle East at high prices because of its effectiveness as a dental and periodontal medicine until the plant was discovered growing wild in the British Isles.
The pharmaceutical uses of goldenrod did not escape the attention of the medical profession. Dr. J. Monroe, a nineteenth-century American physician, praised goldenrod as a “cleanser of the internal viscera” and claimed that it prevented consumption and dropsy. However, only one species–sweet goldenrod–caught on enough in official American medical circles to be included in the United States Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1882.
Today, goldenrod is still highly regarded, especially among European and Asian herbal practitioners. The leaves of many Solidago species exhibit an astringency that makes them valuable in salves for wounds, sores, and insect bites (hence the alternate name woundwort for European goldenrod), and a tea made from sweet goldenrod leaves has been used to treat digestive problems, fevers, and urinary ailments. (Goldenrod is not recommended, however, in cases of kidney infection.) Sweet goldenrod flowers serve as a general tonic and a headache remedy. Both gray and European goldenrod have been prescribed as diuretics and stimulants, and the seeds especially have been used to relieve gas and heartburn. European goldenrod also appears in arthritis remedies, and its seeds in remedies for excessive menstrual flow. A goldenrod throat spray or gargle is available in many European countries.
Though little research has been done in the United States on the efficacy of goldenrod as a medicinal herb, the essential oil has been shown to contain borneol, a volatile oil component also found in cardamom, valerian, and thyme which is antiseptic, rubefacient (circulatory stimulant), and expectorant. Goldenrod also contains bioflavonoids, which are known to help control certain kinds of hemorrhage by lowering blood pressure and decreasing capillary fragility, and which also assist in the absorption of vitamin C.
Many people in North America, including the Hopi and Navajo Indians and the Pennsylvania Dutch, have prized goldenrod as a dye source. The leaves and flowers produce a wide range of yellows, golds, and greens. See “Go for the Gold” on page 47 for directions for dyeing with goldenrod flowers.
Other uses for goldenrod have been developed but never caught on. Thomas Edison developed a method for extracting a rubberlike substance from the plant, but it proved too expensive for commercial use. And a scheme in the 1940s to sell the essential oil as an ingredient for chewing gum, candies, and deodorants was never implemented.
Modern notions about cultivating goldenrod are a study in differing tastes. While North America has dozens of species of goldenrod, including the most striking and best tasting, most Americans consider it a weed. Meanwhile, Europeans, with only one rather drab native species, esteem the American species as garden specimens and have developed a wealth of hybrids with even more brilliant flowers and less weedy habit.
If you are considering growing goldenrod for the first time, your choice of species will depend on what you want from the plant. Are you looking for beautiful blooms, brilliant dyes, or fragrant tea? Many people grow goldenrod strictly for its enticing appearance: its daisy yellow or rich gold flowers appear in August and September, adding an end-of-summer dazzle to the garden. For fresh cut and lush garden flowers, sweet goldenrod has been eclipsed somewhat by hybrids with S. canadensis. Other people may be interested in experimenting with various species for the dyes they produce, keeping in mind that the color will be affected by everything from the part of the country in which the plant is grown to the amount of humus in the soil. Still others just want a source of tasty tea leaves. In that case, sweet goldenrod is the best choice.
Goldenrod is easy to grow from nursery plants or from root divisions taken in spring before the plants get too large. Seeds are also an option, and they can be sown in fall or spring. Give goldenrod well-drained, humusy, slightly acid garden soil in full sun or part shade. (In the wild, goldenrod grows in a variety of poor, rocky, and sandy soils.) Hold off on the fertilizer, as it can promote spindly growth. The plants require little moisture. Insects, especially bees and butterflies, are crazy about goldenrod when it’s in bloom, but the plant doesn’t seem to have any particular problems with insect pests or disease. Sweet goldenrod is hardy throughout most of the United States.
• The Flowery Branch, PO Box 1330-HCD, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. Catalog $2. S. odora seeds.
• Goodwin Creek Gardens, Dept. HC, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. Catalog $1. S. odora and S. caesia (wreath goldenrod) plants.
• Niche Gardens, Dept. HC, 1111 Dawson Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27516. Catalog $3. Plants of several Solidago species and cultivars.
• Bliss, Anne. North American Dye Plants. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1993.
• Van Stralen, Trudy. Indigo, Madder, and Marigolds: A Portfolio of Colors from Natural Dyes. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1993.
Jill Jepson, a medical anthropologist at the University of California, San Francisco, holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and specializes in herbal medicines and plant uses around the world.
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