Exploring the beauty and benefits of native goldenrod species for gardens and wildlife
I cannot recall a summer in Oklahoma when I’ve seen more wildflowers blooming. This year has been a wildflower extravaganza, from carpets of coreopsis in June to stunning summer stands of liatris. And the show is far from over. I’ve already noticed clumps of ironweed opening their purple tops and soon we will see the first goldenrods strutting their sunny blooms.
Goldenrod is the common name for a group of over 120 herbaceous perennials that bloom primarily in late summer through autumn, producing vibrant clusters of yellow flowers that pollinators find irresistible. Traditionally, goldenrods belonged to the genus Solidago and you will still see most plants labeled with this name although several have been reclassified (e.g. Euthamia and Oligoneuron species).
Over 100 goldenrod species are native to North America, and Oklahoma is home to a remarkable 25 species. Many of our native goldenrods are available commercially from garden centers and specialty growers. Perhaps the most well-known and widely available of these is ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod, a cultivar of roughleaf goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) that explodes with arching sprays of golden blooms in late summer. Another popular cultivar in the nursery trade was discovered growing naturally in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains. Called ‘Golden Torch’ or ‘Wichita Mountains’ goldenrod, this unidentified species produces flower spikes packed with tiny, daisy-like blooms.
Goldenrod is often wrongly blamed for allergies. This is because it blooms at the same time as common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisifolia), one of the biggest culprits for fall allergies. And while ragweed’s inconspicuous flowers go unnoticed, goldenrod’s showy blooms stand out during allergy season, causing this false association. However, goldenrod pollen is sticky and heavy, meant to be carried by bees, butterflies and other pollinators rather than blown by the wind.
As a student, I studied the best plants for attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects to the garden. I recall visiting goldenrods in both gardens and natural areas to study the insect associations. Goldenrod was always teaming with native bees and beetles, tiny parasitic wasps (good guys), minute pirate bugs (argh! – an aphid eater) and, of course, an abundance of butterflies and moths. In fact, one of Oklahoma’s native species, stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) is known to host over 100 insect species!
Not only does goldenrod attract pollinators to the garden, but also a host of birds that feed on the insects it supports. And in autumn, as blooms give way to seeds, a variety of songbirds feast on the seedheads including American goldfinch, Carolina wren, and indigo buntings, among others. As such, goldenrod makes a wonderful addition to both wildlife and pollinator gardens. Many varieties are also right at home in the perennial plantings and mixed borders.
Some goldenrod species are better suited to garden life than others. A few species spread aggressively through rhizomes including Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima). These are best left to naturalize in meadow plantings. The better-behaved goldenrods are clump-forming and include several Oklahoma natives such as showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) and stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida). ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod mentioned above is a slow spreader and performs well in the garden.
Goldenrods grow naturally in a range of environments and several species are adapted to shadier conditions, such as blue stem goldenrod (Solidago caesia) and anise scented goldenrod (Solidago odora). Look for varieties that match the growing conditions found in your landscape, including sun exposure, soil type and moisture. Goldenrods pair well with fall-blooming asters, ironweed, and sedums. They also combine beautifully with ornamental grasses or on a backdrop of beautyberry.