By Dr. Judy Stout, Mobile County Master Gardener / MobileCountyMasterGardeners.org
It’s that time of year again — hay fever season. It is also the season for glorious blooms of goldenrod (Solidago sp.) in fields, along roadsides and in ditches throughout Alabama. Because of this coincident timing and the very conspicuous goldenrod flowers, many have blamed them for hay fever. Wrong! The most likely culprit is ragweed (Ambrosia sp.), which is also in abundant bloom, but because it lacks petals it is inconspicuous and ignored.
Ragweed has abundant, tiny, windborne pollen that is widely spread in the late summer and early fall and causes allergic reactions when inhaled. On the other hand, the pollen of goldenrod is larger, sticky and too heavy to be transported by the wind. Goldenrod species require transport of the pollen between plants by a pollinator animal. The pollen is not an allergen, though some people may rarely have a slight skin rash after contacting the sap of the plant.
Goldenrods are among the most important late-season pollinator support plants, visited by honeybees, other native bees, wasps, butterflies, moths and beetles. Honeybees gather nectar from the flowers and use the pollen to provision their late-season nests. They and other insects are dependent on the nectar, which can reach an average sugar concentration of 33 percent.
The leaves may be eaten by deer and rabbits, and some species of moth caterpillars, lacewings, leafhoppers and other herbivorous insects. Enlarging on the goldenrod food chain, predatory insects such as praying mantises and spiders feed on all the abundant insect buffet. Birds then swoop in to feast on the insects! Dr. Doug Tallamy, researcher, author, and widely respected University of Delaware entomologist, says Solidago “is one of the best herbaceous native perennials for attracting pollinators and feeding wildlife.”
With showy late-season blooms and such value to the ecosystem, goldenrod should be a natural choice for meadow gardens, pollinator gardens and home flower beds. The “Alabama Plant Atlas” lists records of 25 species of Solidago in Alabama. Seeds and plants of goldenrod are difficult to locate, but some can be found from online sources. Make sure species selected are native to Alabama. (In October, the Mobile Botanical Gardens plans to offer one or more goldenrod varieties for sale.)
Seeds can be collected from wild populations and clumps can be dug and divided if enough roots and rhizomes are transplanted. Replant immediately. Goldenrod grows best in full sun and is forgiving of most soil types. Local species may be suitable for more specific conditions: pine barrens goldenrod (S. fistulosa) in wet ditches and pinewoods; seaside goldenrod (S. mexicana) on dunes and beaches and in maritime forests; and woody goldenrod (S. pauciflosculosa) on the harshest dunes and beaches. Other common species to consider include tall goldenrod (S. altissima) and anise-scented goldenrod (S. odora).
OF NOTE. The Alabama Legislature adopted Solidago as the state flower of Alabama in 1927, the same year the yellowhammer woodpecker was chosen as the state bird. However, in 1959, a group of ladies from the Butler County Camellia Club pressured the Legislature to remove the title and replace it with the Camellia sp., calling the goldenrod “a weed not deserving of such lofty status.” A strange choice since camellias are not natives of the United States, coming instead from East Asian countries.
Also, there are several different species of Camellia and the 1999 Legislature clarified its intent, naming Camellia japonica (native of Japan and North Korea!) the Alabama state flower. As a consolation to state loyalty and native sensibilities, in the same year, the native oakleaf hydrangea was named the state wildflower, still slighting the goldenrod! In a 1917 National Geographic article on state flowers, Solidago was tied with Viola as the most common genus selected as a state wildflower. Currently, the two species are still tied with designations in four states each (Solidago in Kentucky, Nebraska, South Carolina and Delaware). Not too shabby for a much-maligned Alabama plant!
See also: “Nectar- and Pollen-Producing Plants of Alabama: A Guide for Beekeepers.” Alabama Cooperative Extension System, ANR-351.
“Top Ten Most-Wanted Bugs in Your Garden.” Alabama Cooperative Extension System, ANR-2283.
FOR YOUR CALENDAR:
What: Fall Plant Sale, Mobile Botanical Gardens
One or more of these goldenrod varieties will be available!
When: Shop online starting Oct. 1, with curbside pickup on Oct. 7, Oct. 8, Oct. 9 and Oct. 14.
Shop in person Oct. 16 (9 a.m. – 4 p.m.) and Oct. 17 (9 a.m. – noon).
Where: 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile
For more info: mgbrebloomshop.com
What: Charles Wood Japanese Garden (walking trail #1)
When: Daylight hours, no fee
Where: 700 Forest Hill Drive, Mobile
For more info: mobilejapanesegarden.com
What: Mobile Botanical Gardens, now open
When: Wednesday through Friday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., by appointment
Where: 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile
For more info: mbgrebloomshop.com
What: Bellingrath Gardens, now open
When: Daily, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Where: 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore
For more info: bellingrath.org
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