My tent stands in a garden
Of aster and goldenrod,
Tilled by the rain and the sunshine,
And sown by the hand of God, – Bliss William Carman
Goldenrods, Solidago ssp., form one of the most interesting interrelationships between flora and fauna of the late- season flowering plants in New England. The name solidago is from two Latin words meaning “ to make” and “ whole”, referring to its use as herbal remedies in the form of teas or compresses, among other uses. Goldenrods are perennial herbs that are members of the Asteraceae, or aster, family. Flowering in August and September they are often found blooming together with the Joe-pyes and asters. The time of year that they bloom has made them a scapegoat for many allergy sufferers who believe they are to blame them for symptoms that are actually due to the ragweeds that flower at the same time.
Goldenrods naturally produce rubber, the Solidago altissima, or Tall Goldenrod being the champ at 6.34.% rubber content. Thomas Edison experimented with a cultivation process to increase rubber content in these plants. George Washington Carver and Henry Ford devised a process to make a much- needed rubber substitute during World War II using goldenrods.
Goldenrods have a unique type of inflorescence that consists of many tiny flowers that aggregate together in a flower head and form a “ false flower”. The individual flowers are most commonly in the form of ray flowers or disk flowers. Identification of species is often done by observing the hairs on the seeds, which may be visible when the plant is still in flower. Goldenrods vary in height, with the tallest (Solidago altissima) at six feet. Some, such as Solidago odora (Sweet Goldenrod) have pleasant odors.
One of the most common goldenrods in New England is the Canada goldenrod, Solidago Canadensis. It is considered alleopathic to sugar maple seedlings, producing chemicals that inhibit their growth. Habitat is disturbed areas- meadows and fields or roadsides. This is a tall plant with hairy stems and a plume flower arrangement. It is associated with the goldenrod gall fly, Eurosta solidaginis, whose larva feed inside a round gall on the stem which is formed by the reaction of the plant to the larva’s saliva. You can easily find these galls when green or later in the season when stalks turn brown. The larva chew an exit hole before the plant tissue hardens up for the winter. In the spring, the adult fly will exit through this hole. Downy woodpeckers and chickadees will peck at these galls to access the larva, especially in harsh winters.
Licorice goldenrod, Solidago odora, has a licorice or anise, scent and the leaves were used in a tea by the Cherokee for colds, coughs, and fevers. This plant is found in the southernmost parts of the New England states, but is absent in Maine. Found in woodlands, along roadsides, disturbed sites and old fields, the flowers have been used to make deep yellow dyes and attract beneficial insects such as lady beetles and lacewings.
Solidago bicolor, white goldenrod, is found at the edges of woodlands. It is also sometimes called “ silver rod “ in reference to its white flowers, the only goldenrod with white flowers in the eastern part of the country. The stamens and pollen will give it a slightly yellow look. Sometimes the spectacular brown hooded owlet caterpillar can be found on this plant where it primarily eats the flower buds and flowers. Found more often on goldenrods with longer flower spikes, this caterpillar is a favorite of many lepidopterists.
Solidago juncea, or early goldenrod, gets its common name from its bloom time, which can be as much as a month prior to many other goldenrod species. This attractive, slender plant has a very delicate appearance, and can be distinguished from other goldenrods by the lack of, or near lack, on the stems and leaves. White-tailed deer, woodchucks, cottontail rabbits and livestock may feed on the plant if less desirable food is available.
Goldenrods provide a source of seeds for Eastern Goldfinch, Tree, Swamp and Song Sparrows as well as some migrating warblers such as the Yellow- rumped warblers.
There are many insects and other arthropods that rely on goldenrods for survival. Bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, cucumber beetles and many others visit flowers for nectar and pollen. Blister beetles are often found on these plants in the late summer and early fall. Butterflies of many species benefit from the long nectar season provided by goldenrods that provide bloom in succession for two months. Migratory butterflies especially depend on this food source as they travel south. Many beneficial insects, such as soldier beetles and assassin bugs use the flowers as either food sources or hideouts, where they wait to ambush other insects. If you see a butterfly hanging upside down without moving, check and see if an ambush bug or crab spider is feeding on it. Caterpillars such as the Asteroid and Brown-hooded Owlet, aphids, tarnished plant bugs, and many other insects feed on flowers, stems and leaves. Wasps, goldenrod and crabr spiders, praying mantids, lacewings, ambush bugs, assassin bugs, spined soldier bugs and birds prey on insects that visit or live on the plants.
Chinese mantids also hang out around goldenrods, and often lay their egg masses on its stems. Look for these in the winter if heavy snows haven’t mashed the plants into the ground. I sometimes take a stem with the mantid egg case and stick it in my garden. The mantids usually emerge by mid- May.
There is a great interconnection between goldenrods, vertebrates and invertebrates, and nature reveals such things to the careful observer. If you happen upon some goldenrod, or seek it out on purpose, just a few moments of careful observation will be rewarded with a peek into the drama that is on display in a simple stand of yellow flowers.
Pamm Cooper All photos © 2015 Pamm Cooper