Herb to Know: Goldenrod

A paradoxical native weed with a colorful story.

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.

Goldenrod Varieties

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.

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