Goldenrod is one of the most abundant native wildflowers throughout Southwestern Ontario. Found in meadows, city parks, and even backyards, goldenrod grows just about everywhere. Unfortunately, goldenrod is viewed as a weed by many and its benefits to our landscape are often overlooked. To make matters worse, goldenrod continues to be falsely blamed as a cause of seasonal allergies.
Often mistaken for ragweed, goldenrod is considered by many to be a contributing factor to their congestion, runny nose, and watery eyes. The truth is, unlike ragweed which relies on airborne pollination, goldenrod’s pollen is too heavy to travel by air and therefore must rely on butterflies and bees for pollination and consequently does not contribute to seasonal allergies.
Blooming throughout late summer and early fall, goldenrod is an incredibly beneficial late season food source for many pollinators including the Monarch Butterfly. During August and September, monarchs are often found nectaring on goldenrod’s colorfoul yellow flowers providing them the required energy needed to complete their long migration south to their wintering grounds in Mexico.
Butterflies are not the only wildlife that benefit from goldenrod, Throughout fall and winter many songbirds can be found feeding on the seed heads after the flowers have lost their vibrant yellow colour. American Goldfinches, Black-capped Chickadees, and Dark-eyed Juncos are among the birds that can commonly be observed in our area feeding on goldenrod seeds.
Many insects overwinter in our area at various stages of their life cycles and they too benefit from goldenrod. Dry leaves and stalks provide the perfect location for insects to spend the cold weather months until they are ready to emerge in spring. Goldenrod Gall Flies are just one example of the many insects that use goldenrod to overwinter. Each summer, gall flies lay their eggs on the stalks of goldenrod plants. Once the egg hatches, the larvae burrows into the stalk which forms the round gall that can be found near the top of goldenrod stalks. It is here where the larva will spend the winter before exiting the gall the following spring as an adult fly to start the cycle all over again. Gall fly larva is readily consumed by both chickadees and woodpeckers and these birds are often observed pecking at the galls trying to extract the larva.
Goldenrod is an important part of any ecosystem as it provides both food and shelter for many creatures from tiny insects to large mammals including deer. For these reasons, I have incorporated goldenrod into my landscape and am quite happy that I have. I enjoy watching Monarch Butterflies each fall during their migration as they stop to nectar. I do not cut my goldenrod back in the fall after it has bloomed, but rather leave it until the following spring. As a result I have noticed a substantial increase in the number of American Goldfinches visiting my yard each fall and winter as they are attracted to the bounty of seeds produced by this native wildflower. My garden may appear a bit messy to some as a result during these months, but I am happy knowing that these plants are still serving a purpose despite being a little less aesthetically pleasing. Come spring, I then remove the old stalks to make way for the new growth that is emerging.
Due to its tall height and tendency to spread rapidly, goldenrod is not one of the most desired garden plants despite its tremendous benefits to our environment. Over the years, I have discovered a few tricks that have removed many of the headaches associated with goldenrod. First, I stay on top of pulling unwanted small plants in the early spring, which keeps my patch manageable and contained to exactly where I want it. Fortunately goldenrod pulls quite easily especially when the soil is moist after a spring rain. Second, in late June I cut my goldenrod back by about 1/4 to 1/3. By reducing the height of the plant it makes them less top heavy and prevents them from falling over after heavy rains associated with summer thunderstorms. After cutting, the plants bush out and produce more flowers which in turn means more food for the pollinators and more seeds for the birds.
There are several varieties of goldenrod available at area garden centres that specialize in native plants including those that do not grow as tall or spread as aggressively. If you are interested in adding goldenrod to your landscape, do some research and pick a variety that is best suited to your garden.
Searching large patches of goldenrod for wildlife to observe and photogrpah is highly productive at any time of the year. Whether it is insects, birds, or mammals their is always something to find among the leaves, flowers, and stalks of this incredibly important native plant. Next time you are out in the field and come across a patch of goldenrod stop and have a look. I think you will be impressed by the abundance of wildlife that you find relying on this plant for both food and shelter.
Suffering from seasonal allergies is certainly not a pleasant experience, but when it comes to goldenrod breathe easy knowing that this native wildflower is not to blame and take solace in all the benefits this colourful flower provides to our environment.