Goldenrod: Big family gets little respect

By: Elisabeth Ginsberg
Florists call the tall, golden-topped stems “solidago” when they include them in expensive bouquets. I suspect that more than one person has glanced at one of those solidago-laden arrangements and said, “It looks just like goldenrod to me.”

And that person would be right. Solidago is simply goldenrod in fancy dress.

Just as ancient alchemists sought, unsuccessfully, to turn base metals into gold, so to do modern plant breeders and florists seek to turn base weeds, such as goldenrod, into retail gold. Drive a truckload of goldenrod through an upscale neighborhood and a cargo of solidago will emerge on the other side. The Latin name has been turned into a marketing tool.

Right now, goldenrod is beginning to unfurl in many places. Most of those places are fallow fields, hedgerow edges and other uncultivated, untenanted spaces. Some are gardens where thoughtfully chosen goldenrod varieties can liven up the middle or rear sections of beds and borders. Smaller varieties can even be grown in large containers.

You would never know it to look at them, but the 120 or more goldenrod species are members of the vast daisy, or Compositae, family. The tall golden plumes, which can rise between 1 and 3 feet or more, are composed of thousands of tiny flowers, loved by butterflies and other pollinators. A field of goldenrod in early September is alive with all kinds of insect life. Keeping track of all of those goldenrod species and varieties is not easy, as they frequently grow in close proximity and tend to interbreed, helped along by those accommodating pollinators.

Any discussion of goldenrod’s virtues is usually interrupted by someone complaining of hay fever. Sadly, the plants have spent decades, if not a century or so, being falsely accused of flinging allergens at our vulnerable respiratory systems. The real culprits are unassuming fellow-traveler plants, such as ragweed. Most of us can enjoy goldenrod, in the wild or in our gardens, with impunity.

To create effective plant pairings with goldenrod, emulate Nature, which combines the yellow plumes with the blue flowers of wild chicory and the blue-purple blooms of New England asters. Wild chicory has a weedy look, but you can get the same color effect by pairing goldenrod with hardy ageratum, or Eupatorium coelestinum, sometimes also called “blue mist flower.” It resembles its relative, annual blue ageratum, which many people use as a bedding plant, except that it has a tall stem – up to 3 feet in height. It can stand cheek by jowl with many goldenrods and it blooms at the same time.

My favorite goldenrod partner is the Monch variety of Frikart’s aster, or Aster x frikartii Monch. Readily available in garden centers or through online vendors, Monch bears scores of small, blue daisies with yellow centers. Monch does not so much grow as it billows forth from the earth. The plants reach 2 to 3 feet tall and up to 18 inches wide. The stems may flop a bit, but are easily corralled with stakes or plant supports. Like perennial ageratum, Monch is about the same height as many goldenrods and blooms at the same time.

I like the blue and yellow pairing of goldenrod and asters, but goldenrod also mixes well with the russet shades that are prevalent in autumn gardens. The wonderfully named sneezeweed, or helenium, is a bit shorter than most goldenrods, and features daisy-like flowers in combinations of yellow, gold and burnt orange. The goldenrod/helenium combo can be paired with tawny-colored chrysanthemums as well. The shorter mums are especially effective at camouflaging the somewhat ungainly stalks of the goldenrod and helenium.

Small space or container gardeners need not be left out of the late September/early autumn flower party. Breeders have created compact goldenrods to fill those pots or garden corners. I especially like Little Lemon, which grows only 8 to 10 inches tall and has a softer, more rounded look than some of its tall, gold relatives. Little Lemon is, as the name suggests, lemon or butter yellow with cloud-like flower panicles. It could be used by itself in a pot or paired in a larger container with an aster of equal size like the blue-purple Aster cordifolius, Wood’s Blue.

Of course any plant that is dubbed “wildflower” is vigorous enough to survive on its own in all kinds of semidesirable settings and reproduce enthusiastically while doing so. That means that it may be weedy or invasive in a garden setting. Goldenrod is no exception to that rule. However, many of the cultivated varieties behave in a more civilized manner. Divide clumps every few years or whenever they seem to be exceeding their allotted spaces. Growing the plants in containers will keep things under control as well, especially if you watch for and grub out unwanted seedlings that may spring up in the vicinity of the container-grown plant.

Like the biblical prophet who is not honored in his own country, goldenrod sometimes gets less respect here than in Europe. If you want to correct that and add beauty to your home landscape, seek out goldenrod at local nurseries and garden centers

or at Bluestone Perennials, 7211 Middle Ridge Road, Madison, OH 44057; 800-852-5243; www.bluestoneperennials.com. Free catalog.
Elisabeth Ginsburg, a resident of Glen Ridge, is a frequent contributor to Worrall Community Newspapers. The writer archives past columns at http://www.gardenersapprentice.com.

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