The Local Wild: Goldenrod: The Innocent Blooming Bystander

Originally published in the Cannon Falls Beacon on August 22, 2018.

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Goldenrod in full bloom. Photo: Jessica Woken.

About this time of year we start seeing them powder the landline in their trademark golden hue, their tops looking like miniature yellow-flocked Christmas trees dancing in the summer breeze atop gangly, thin-leaved stems. They are goldenrod, the perennial herb often considered a weed and even more often blamed for a season crime it does not commit.

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A goldenrod plant, pre-bloom. Note the thin, opposite-growing, smooth leaves along a single stalk. Photo: Jessica Woken

If you suffer from hay fever you may groan and give goldenrod flowers the stink-eye, thinking the pretty posies are adding to your daily torment of itching, sneezing, coughing, and all other manner of suffering. Well, I’m here to say: Don’t, because goldenrod doesn’t induce allergic reactions usually associated with seasonal allergies (aka hay fever).

What, you say? That doesn’t make sense! Then why do I get allergies whenever goldenrod flowers appear? The answer lies in the precise time during summer when goldenrod goes into full bloom, which is right when a less showy weed also reaches maturation: Ragweed.

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Ragweed. Photo: Krzysztof Ziarnek Kenraiz (Wikimedia Creative Commons).

Ragweed pollen is a very potent and lightweight allergen that disperses on the slightest breeze. Goldenrod’s heavy pollen, on the other hand, spreads with the help of insect or animal and not via the wind and because it doesn’t travel on wind it’s nearly impossible for goldenrod pollen to induce hay fever. Why? Because seasonal allergies are triggered when offending particles are inhaled through the nose or when contact is made with sensitive eye mucous, and the only way for particles to reach the nasal cavity or eyes is—you guessed it—through the air.

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It’s common and normal to see these leafy “bundles” atop a goldenrod stalk. Note the flowering stems projecting out of the stalk. Photo: Jessica Woken

Once you know that goldenrod is innocent of all charges, you’ll find the plant isn’t only a pretty marker of the waning of the summer season but that it also offers a number of benefits. It has medicinal and dietary applications; serves as an important source of nectar for bees and butterflies; can be used as a base for yellow dye; and is recognized an indicator of an ecosystem coming back to life after environmental trauma (goldenrod is often the first plant to grow following wildfire).

Goldenrod has also become a popular addition to bouquets for weddings, though florists refer to them by their more proper and more romantic name, Yellow Solidago.

So next time you’re out and about enjoying the fresh air, give good ol’ goldenrod a break. Instead of mistakenly loathing it for the hay fever it hasn’t given you, snip a few of the fluffy yellow tops to display in a flower arrangement or take them home to make a caffeine-free tea that is used by herbalists to reduce inflammation, treat UTIs, break up kidney stones, and as remedy for other common ailments. In doing so you may inspire yourself to develop a new local wild affinity for this pretty and regularly misjudged herbaceous bystander.

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