Floridata Article

There's Gold in Our Meadows

Goldenrod is favored by many insects including the tiger swallowtail. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
A tiger swallowtail butterfly finds nectar in the goldenrod (Solidago odorata) in our meadow.

After a long dry summer, there's gold in our meadows and it will stay there until first frost sometime in December.  Yes, that gold is the much under-appreciated goldenrod . It has grown here in lovely profusion in the two and a half years since we stopped mowing these areas.  

It has spread by rhizomes and has produced several thick patches in the sunniest areas of the meadows. I think these stands were already established, and that the previous owner mowed them along with the grass. They are not growing on our drainfield meadow, however, and I think it's because all that soil was imported during the installation of the septic system.

The second reason that goldenrod is "golden" is because of all the insects and birds it attracts. What a great addition for your butterfly garden:: a beautiful native plant that needs no care whatsoever. It does well in full sun or partial shade and tolerates wet or dry conditions in many types of soil.  Seaside goldenrod has waxy leaves and tolerates salt spray.   

Goldenrod is in the composite family, Asteraceae, the same as sunflowers. Its florets are grouped in twos or threes and are arranged in various ways along the stem. Some are in sprays at the top of the stalk, others are located down the stalk in the leaf axils. Solidago, the genus name, means to make whole. Native Americans and herbalists used goldenrod to cure many ailments from sore throats to tuberculosis.  

Several species occur in Florida and they tend to hybridize, so definite identification is tricky. I think we have sweet goldenrod (S. ordorata) because the crushed leaves smell like anise or licorice. You can purchase goldenrod if you don't already have it, but probably not at the big box stores. You'll need to find a nursery specializing in native plants or you can buy it online. 

Bad reputation?

Goldenrod is not usually the cause of hay fever. It's insect-pollinated, so its pollen is heavy and sticky. The real culprit for fall allergies is the wind-pollinated ragweed (Ambrosia spp) that also blooms in late summer. 

Ugh. Ragweed. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Ugh. Ragweed.

Apparently people blamed goldenrod for ragweed's rambunctious pollen generation, because they could see the goldenrod's beautiful flowers and not the inconspicuous ragweed blossoms that often occur nearby.

Ragweed is a native plant and birds will eat its seeds, but there is nothing else good about this plant. I pull it out when I spot in in our meadows. Its genus name, Ambrosia, means food for the gods and it was named by Linnaeus, the inventor of our scientific binomial system. Linnaeus gave all kinds of reasons for assigning the Latinized names, but this one must have been a joke. See my article A Plant by Any Common Name for more information on Linnaeus.

This ragweed plant (A. artemisiifolia) pictured here was about ten inches tall before I yanked it out. Individual plants can range in size from six inches to six feet. Ragweed lurks in meadows or ditches waiting for a chance in invade a newly disturbed site with bare soil where it will grow taller.  

Thread-waisted wasp is almost as large as the sunflower. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Thread-waisted wasp is almost as large as the sunflower.

Another source of gold?

Yes, there's another lovely golden late-bloomer in our meadows this year.  It's the six-foot tall perennial sunflower (Helianthus maximiliania) with its array of three-inch flowers on six to ten-inch stems all along the stalk. Now in the middle of September, many of them are blooming. I planted the seeds in the spring.  One set of instructions on perennial sunflowers stated that it would be unlikely to flower the first year.  I guess "they" didn't consider our long growing season here in northern Florida. Maybe these late bloomers will provide color until frost. I'll let you know.

Next spring, I will transplant some of these sunflowers to areas farther back in the meadows and in places where I can fashion some support for them. Like some of the other species I described in my sunflower column, Maximilian's sunflower tends to flop over in the wind or rain and stays on the ground, but then the flowers down its stalk poke up from there. While this provides an interesting groundcover, that's not really what I was after. Plus they've tended to fall into paths and onto other plants.

Helianthus maximiliania lounging around the garden. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Helianthus maximiliania lounging around the garden.

Like goldenrod, sunflowers attract a wide variety of pollinators while in flower.  Once the seeds set, birds come in for a feast.  Maybe some of the seeds will hit the ground and sprout next year, but if the birds get them all, that's fine with me.

The gold in our meadows, and all the critters it attracts, makes my life richer. How about you?

Related Information

If you're interested in learning more about your local native plants, join a local chapter of a native plant society. In Florida it's the Florida Native Plant Society www.fnps.org .

For more and up-to-date information on our front meadow and the other meadow areas, see the meadow webpage.

Click to listen to some of my relevant Times Union podcasts:

Ginny Stibolt talks about ragweed and goldenrod 
Ginny Stibolt talks about sunflowers
Ginny Stibolt teaches us about meadow management.

Ginny Stibolt moved to northeastern Florida in 2004 and even though she's a botanist and lifelong gardener, Florida gardening was a shock. She started writing The Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener columns for the Times Union newspaper in Jacksonville. This is one of those columns archived here on Floridata.com for your enjoyment. Now she's written three Florida garden books published by University Press of Florida: Sustainable Gardening for Florida, 2009; Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida with Melissa Contreras, 2013, and The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape, 2015. Check out her blog for the latest news and articles: www.GreenGardeningMatters.com

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