Misblamed as an allergen, goldenrod belongs in gardens

Posted Aug. 14, 2009, at 9:27 p.m.

There are 19 species of goldenrod, Solidago sp., that are native to Maine, each unique in size, leaf shape, or the form in which it displays its golden flowers in late summer and early fall. Learning to identify each species, even in bloom, would be an ambitious project, a goal for my retirement years. At the moment I am more interested in the role of goldenrods in our gardens.

First, let me assure you that goldenrods do not cause hay fever. While goldenrod pollen is too heavy to be carried on the wind, the wind-borne pollen from the tiny green flowers of common ragweed, an inconspicuous plant flowering at the same time as some goldenrods, is the main cause of hay fever.

Goldenrod pollen is dispersed by pollinating insects, including native solitary bees and bumblebees, butterflies, wasps and beetles. Even spiders have been shown to move goldenrod pollen around as they prey on other insects.

For gardeners interested in bolstering pollinator populations in their gardens, goldenrods are hard to beat. Their late-season nectar and protein-rich pollen attract pollinators in higher numbers than any other plant species.

Garden designers often work with the contrasting colors and textures of non-native herbaceous plant species, creating gardens that are beautiful to look at but functionally useless in terms of nourishing local biodiversity. Equally beautiful and far more functional garden combinations can be created by observing plant partnerships in nature.

During the first week of August, Maine roadsides and fields are filled with goldenrods growing side by side with a pollinator-attracting native shrub, meadowsweet, Spiraea alba var. latifolia. The soft pink of meadowsweet’s small flowers, borne in terminal branched clusters, is a pleasing contrast to goldenrod’s bolder bright yellow. Planting the two species together in the garden represents the essence of bringing nature home.

The ecologically functional garden is defined by which plants the gardener allows to grow in the landscape and which are weeded out. Simply allowing goldenrod and its native companions to flourish in a wild corner or border will provide nectar and pollen for native pollinators.

In Marjorie’s garden, meadowsweets and early goldenrods are flowering now along the driveway while a clump of another goldenrod species is coming into bloom in the shade of a tall pine next to the porch. We planted none of these, but it is a joy to move quietly among them, watching pollinators and beneficial predators at work.

Or you can plant goldenrods in your garden, in the wilder areas or in the perennial border. There are few cultivated herbaceous perennials more ornamental or more durable.

Regionally native species of goldenrods are available from local growers and garden centers. Julie and Peter Beckford, owners of Rebel Hill Farm in Clifton, grow five goldenrod species, each native to Maine and chosen with perennial gardens in mind. They distribute their plants to garden centers across the state and also sell them by appointment at their farm, 843-6916.

I discovered that garden centers in the Bangor-Ellsworth area do not stock native goldenrods, but three are willing to procure them for their customers as needed. These are Sprague’s Nursery and Garden Center and Windswept Gardens, both in Bangor, and New Land Nursery in Ellsworth.

For sunny, dry gardens, local gardeners should grow the tall goldenrod, Solidago altissima, a rare species that grows to 7 feet tall, and two shorter species, gray goldenrod, S. nemoralis, and elm-leaved goldenrod, S. ulmifolia, growing to 3 and 4 feet, respectively. All three species flower in August with gray goldenrod and tall goldenrod continuing into September.

For wetter garden sites, use the blue-stemmed goldenrod, S. caesia, which grows 4 feet tall, and smooth goldenrod, S. gigantea, which tops out at 7 feet. Both flower in the fall.

There is a source of native goldenrods! Things are looking up for those of us with gardens designed not only to look like nature, but to function like nature; gardens that nourish pollinators and protect the world of insects we depend on in a shared struggle to stay alive.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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