Perennial Notes Excerpts
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THE PERENNIAL SEARCH
From time to time, we will be bringing you Perennial Search stories from our archives. This article first appeared in Perennial Notes, Volume IX, No. 4, Fall 1994, but is just as valid today, and particularly pertinent in light of the challenging drought conditions which have prevailed for the past several seasons.
Goldenrod Solidago spp.
In one of life’s romantic twists of fate, I found myself in England a few years ago falling head-over-heels for an American native plant. The plant was goldenrod (Solidago spp.). At Ness Gardens in Cheshire, I encountered a gargantuan border where tall clumps of goldenrod were planted at intervals. Its blossoms gleamed in the September sun and collectively they created a gilded thread that tied the entire bed together. Ornamental grasses, asters, and cardinal flower all provided additional color; however, it was the goldenrod, that autumn fixture of America’s roadsides, which stole the show in this English landscape.
The British have only one Solidago. Nevertheless, they plant goldenrod frequently, while those of us who garden here in the New World, and are blessed with more than eighty different types of goldenrod, seldom allow it past the garden gate. Perhaps goldenrod, like gold bullion, increases in value with scarcity.
Solidago is assigned to the plant family Compositae and possesses the typical ray and disc flowers of the daisies. Its name is derived from the Latin ‘solido’ meaning ‘to strengthen’ or ‘’make whole’. Native Americans and early European settlers used the native goldenrod to cure a wide range of ills. These included headache, stomach spasms, and ulcers. Goldenrod inhabits woodland edges, thickets, fields, and occasionally moist areas. It will bloom in full sun as well as part shade.
From a practical standpoint, many of the native goldenrods are too tall to incorporate into small gardens. Thankfully, plant breeders are providing us with more compact cultivars. Three of these cultivars can be especially recommended.
Dr. Dick Lighty, Director of the Mount Cuba Center for the Study of Piedmont Flora, found Solidago sphacelata "Golden Fleece’ in a North Carolina garden. Its sturdy eighteen-inch stems rise from heart-shaped basal leaves and gracefully arching, yellow flower panicles are produced from the end of August through October. Another goldenrod, Solidago ‘Crown of Rays’, is slightly taller at about twenty-four inches and begins flowering in July. Its inflorescence is more plume-like.
Last year (ed. note. this would have been 1993) Kim Hawks of Niche Gardens began offering a spectacular selection of Solidago rugosa. This plant is rough-leaved goldenrod and it was originally found by Ken Moore at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. This goldenrod’s lacy, radiating bloom spikes inspired the cultivar name ‘Fireworks’.
For me it blooms just in time for Labor Day. At three-to-four feet it doesn’t overwhelm small gardens and while it leans a little, it does so gracefully. If you plant ‘Fireworks’, expect to hear comments like "I can’t believe it’s a goldenrod!"
Many perennial growers in the Atlanta/Athens area now offer one or more Solidago cultivars. The mature clumps divide easily in early spring and stem cuttings root best in May or June. Seed of native goldenrod species is available through wildflower catalogs, or you can collect seed in the fall. As soon as the tufted seeds ripen on the plant, they can be sown immediately or stored dry in a sealed container in the refrigerator. Sow the wild species of goldenrod rather thickly as germination is often low. I was successful in growing Park’s ‘Golden Baby’ from seed and the plants produced blooms during their second season. This dwarf goldenrod’s only shortcoming is that it blooms in summer rather than fall.
Taking a cue from the seductive border at Ness Gardens, plant goldenrod in combination with purple fall asters, dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’), rosy-domed Joe-Pye weed, or Ironweed (Vernonia spp.). Solidago’s value as a nectar source makes it an excellent addition to the butterfly garden. Additionally, its medicinal heritage would appeal to herb fanciers, and the flowers and leaves also yield a yellow dye that is valued by fiber artists. If harvested before they fully open, the blooms dry nicely for winter arrangements.
Few perennials can boast a longer list of attributes than either native or hybridized goldenrod. Yet, it languishes unappreciated – some would even say unloved – in our hedgerows and ditches. Perhaps autumn is the time to elevate the genus Solidago, especially its newly available cultivars, to a position of status in our affections and in our gardens.
(Paula adds this update 6/9/2001: The Chicago Botanical Garden just completed a five-year trial of 22 Solidagos. In a lengthy report by Richard G. Hawke, Manager of Plant Evaluation Records at the Garden, the best overall rating was given to S. rugosa 'Fireworks'. Other superior plants were Solidago 'Baby Star', S. 'Goldkind' ('Baby Star'), S. rigida, and S. sphacelata 'Golden Fleece'. It should be noted that Chicago is USDA Zone 5b.)
More on Solidago:
"While we often choose our plants for their appearance, the bees make choices based on nectar. A favorite of gardeners, Solidago "Fireworks", does not give off a nectar. The November 2000 issue of American Bee Journal had an article on "Classic American Honey Plants: Goldenrod ". It discussed the following: Sweet-Scented Goldenrod (S.odora), Early Goldenrod (S. Juncea), Canadian Goldenrod (S. Canadensis), goldenrod (S. serotina) and Seaside Goldenrod (S. sempervirens). It mentioned that one author had "praised Bushy Goldenrod (S. graminifolia) as one of the best nectar yielders and a favorite with honeybees."
The photograph is credited to Muriel Weinerman, Photographer at the New York Botanical Garden. Visit their website at http://www.nybg.org.