Goldenrods, Solidago spp.

September 1, 2016

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 Heavy waves of goldenrod in the morning breeze;

swift spring the startled grasshoppers, thick about our knees…

                -Celia Thaxter

Goldenrods, Solidago spp. are a very showy part of the late-summer, and into autumn, eastern North American landscape. With more than 120 species worldwide, there are 100 species native to the United States and Canada, 8-9 species native to Mexico, and another 10-12 species native to South America, the Azores, Europe and Asia. All are herbaceous perennials, having erect stems which are sometimes rather woody at the base. The leaves are simple, alternate, entire or serrate, often aromatic.  The tiny, golden-yellow, flowerheads form wand-shaped clusters on the upper ends of outwardly curving branches.Solidago odora flw

The first yellowing fronds of goldenrod

brighten the margins of the woods…

                -Jane Kenyon

Solidago rugosa Fireworks with Calamagrostis

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) used the genus name Solidago in his 1753 landmark publication Species Plantarum, which introduced the accepted usage of binomial nomenclature to greatly simplify the previously long and cumbersome plant names. Solidago is from the Latin Solido, to make whole, from its supposed healing attributes. For centuries the flowers and leaves have been considered to have healing value. Well before Elizabethan times (ca.1560-1600), European species of goldenrod were commonly useful for treating sores and ulcers.

Solidago sempervirens with Spartina breviligularia

With golden pennants streaming,

With myriad brazen spears,

They drive the fleeing summer

Over the fallen years.

                -John Russell McCarthy

Solidago sempervirens flw

Multiple native American populations were also known to use goldenrod beneficially. The Cherokees prepared a tea to reduce fever. The Delaware used one species as a diarrhea remedy. The Navajos and Meskwaki created a poultice to gain relief from bee and wasp stings and ant and insect bites. The Zuni chewed goldenrod flowers, slowly swallowing the juice to cure sore throats.

Solidago puberula flw

a late summer lit

only by goldenrod and a misplaced strand

of blackberries; …

                -Jay Wright

Solidago curtisii fl

Visionary founder of Mount Auburn, Jacob Bigelow (1787- 1879), physician, botanist and Harvard Medical School Professor for forty years, noted goldenrods’ challenging taxonomy, as well as its medicinal utility. In his 1817, American Medical Botany: Being a Collection of Native Medicinal Plants of the United States, Bigelow wrote of Solidago odora, Sweet goldenrod, “No part of the vegetation in the United States is so conspicuous and gaudy in the autumnal months, and at the same time furnishes the botanist so difficult a task of discrimination, as the multitudinous and Protean genera Solidago and Aster. Each of these genera contain many well defined species…But between them is a great multitude of subspecies…running together by so many points of resemblance, that it is a labour yet remaining for botanists to separate those species which are in nature distinct, from those which are varieties only.” Regarding its medicinal use, he wrote further, “…the volatile oil appears to possess all the medicinal value of this plant, … I have employed it to allay vomiting, and to relieve spasmodic pains in the stomach of the milder kind, with satisfactory success. From its pleasant flavour, it serves to cover the taste of laudanum, castor oil, and other medicines, whose disagreeable taste causes them to be rejected by delicate and irritable stomachs.”

Solidago caesia flower

A father called

to his daughter to see monarch butterflies,

pausing in their migration to fan the goldenrod,

                -Rebecca Hazelton

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Borrowing on au courant lexicon, we also have some wicked local historical trivia regarding goldenrod. The original Tea Party in Boston, on December 16, 1773, in which 45-tons of tea were thrown into Boston Harbor, resulted in among other things, the closure of the harbor to trade pending payment for the destroyed tea. Hence, with no tea around local ingenuity came up with a widely accepted substitute, called Liberty Tea, who’s major ingredient came from the leaves of goldenrod.

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goldenrod blowing. We walk

into the graveyard, to find

my grandfather’s grave….

                -Donald Hall

Goldenrods are often unfairly maligned for causing autumn hay fever. However, these are nothing to be sneezed at. To cause one to sneeze, a plant’s pollen has to get into one’s nose. Goldenrods’ pollen is too heavy and sticky to be blown around by breezes. The real culprit is ragweed, Ambrosia sp., which takes advantage of a major case of mistaken identity. Ragweed’s inconspicuous, tiny, green, flowers spew vast amounts of very light allergy-irritating pollen into the air, then hence into noses.  On your next visit to Mount Auburn, look for goldenrod at the Washington Tower wildflower planting, Willow Pond butterfly garden, and our greenhouse garden, among other locations.

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About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant View all posts by Jim Gorman →

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