Goldenrods are butterfly magnets, and their tiny flowers host many other insects as well, according to native plant expert Helen Hamilton.
“In late summer, any spray of goldenrod will be covered with several species of butterflies, wasps, bees, beetles, all busily sucking the nectar from the closely spaced flowers,” said Hamilton, past president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society, and retired biology teacher living in Williamsburg, Va.
There are a lot of goldenrod species in Virginia, many widespread and some with restricted distributions, Hamilton continues. They may have flowers in plumes or in branching, club-like, slender and wand-like, or flat-topped arrangements, depending on the species.
Although goldenrods are commonly blamed for hay fever, the discomfort is usually caused by the pollen from ragweed (Ambrosia spp.), which is wind-borne.
“The pollen of goldenrods is carried by insects as it is too heavy to be airborne under ordinary circumstances,” said Hamilton.
Blooming profusely in late autumn, Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima) features tall golden-yellow plumes; small yellow flowers are arranged along the upper side of branches, forming a feathery, pyramidal plume. The plant can grow over 6 feet tall and self-seeds prolifically. Tall Goldenrod thrives along roadsides, open woods and other dry open places. The vigorous perennial is found across the United States and most of Canada, and in nearly every county in Virginia. Tall Goldenrods grow in any soil — dry to moist, and special bee species pollinate the blooms.
In Virginia, Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) is the only one with thick fleshy leaves that have smooth toothless edges. A spray of bright yellow flower heads are in curved, one-sided clusters, forming a large mass of blossoms at the ends of 6-foot-tall stems. It’s a plant that loves marshes and sandy soil near the sea, growing at the edge of salt or brackish marshes, on small dunes and in meadows. In addition to Virginia’s Coastal Plain, Seaside Goldenrod is found in salty places along the coast from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to tropical America. The plant has spread inland locally, especially along highways that are salted in winter, reportedly even as far west as Michigan, according to Hamilton.
White Goldenrod (Solidago bicolor), often called Silverrod, has white flowers, not yellow but there may be a yellowish tint from the pollen on the white flowers. Growing 1 to 3 feet tall, the flowers are clustered on very short branches, giving a wand-like appearance. White Goldenrod is seen in every county in Virginia, and ranges from Nova Scotia, west to Wisconsin and south to Georgia and Louisiana, added Hamilton.
Slender Goldenrod (Euthamia caroliniana) and Flat-top Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) were formerly in the genus Solidago. These goldenrods have dense flower clusters growing on the tips of branches, to form a flat-topped spray.
Species of goldenrod were used by Native Americans for toothaches, colds, heart disease, sore throats, fevers, cramps, and internal hemorrhage, according to Hamilton. The name comes from Latin solidus, and ago, “to make whole,” because this group of plants supposedly heals wounds.
“All these plants are highly desirable in the fall garden,” said Hamilton.
“With long blooming periods — August through November — they furnish nectar and pollen for insects getting ready for winter. The stems should not be cut until early spring, since overwintering insects will lay their eggs or develop pupae in the hollow stems of these plants.”