The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Goldenrods add glorious color to fall gardens

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator
slmason@illinois.edu

The bedazzling color of goldenrod is a sure sign of the close of the summer season. As the hours of sunlight decrease, the flowers of goldenrod give us a glimpse of one last burst of sunny yellow color. With all it provides goldenrod gets little respect as a garden perennial. Could be it is just too common since some species are found growing in ditch banks or it may be its lovelessness is due to its misguided association with hay fever. Ragweed that blooms at the same time and often near goldenrod is the actual culprit in hay fever problems.

I hear the snorts of stuffy nosed doubters, so let's look at both plants. Goldenrod has showy yellow flowers to attract its insect pollinators of bees and butterflies. Its pollen is heavy and sticky so it will cling to insects for a ride to the next flower so pollination will occur. Heavy sticky pollen does not blow well in the wind or up your nose. Conversely ragweed has tiny, homely green flowers and relies on wind pollination. Ragweed overwhelms the air with lightweight pollen in the hopes pollen will land on another ragweed flower. The take home lesson is: if you have allergy problems, beware of the stealthy green flowers that rely on wind pollination.

Goldenrod is an excellent garden perennial that is much more beloved in Europe than in its homeland of North America. Its bloom time varies with the species, but is usually late summer to early fall. Plant heights vary from 1-6 feet tall. Our winters are no problem for these durable perennials.

In their native areas goldenrods may be found growing in prairies, woodlands and bogs. A quick check of the plant's native habitat always helps. Most goldenrods grow well in full sun to very light shade in well-drained soil of average to low fertility. Once established, they are quite drought resistant. Goldenrods also provide food for beneficial insects and butterflies.

In the garden the clump-forming goldenrods are preferable to ones that spread by underground stems called rhizomes. The local roadside goldenrod is likely Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis, and its rhizomes spread with wild abandon. It may also infiltrate your garden as the seeds drift through the air on tiny parachutes.

The garden goldenrods tend to be clump formers. Cultivars to look for include:

'Golden Baby' grows two feet tall with golden yellow plumes. 'Cloth of Gold' is 18 to 24 inches tall with dense, deep yellow flowers.

One of my favorites is Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks'. The tiny yellow flowers outline the arching stems for the well-named fireworks show. 'Fireworks' is almost shrub-like with its sturdy stems and tight crown. The small leaves emerge burgundy in spring then turn dark green in summer.

'Baby Sun', 'Baby Gold' and 'Goldkind' are agreeable upright hybrids at two and half feet tall, although they need deadheading to remove the distracting brown seed heads. Variegated goldenrod, Solidago flexicaulis 'Variegata' has gold mottled leaves to present a color show well before the flowers. 'Golden Fleece' has a long bloom period well into October.

Our native prairie rigid goldenrod, Solidago rigida, is an excellent clump forming goldenrod with rounded gray-green leaves. The flowers aren't as showy as some other goldenrods, but the leaves add a nice contrast to the garden. Rigid goldenrod can get five feet tall in a garden and by late summer may get a bit lazy in its form. Cutting stems back by one half in June reduces the height and makes for more compact growth.

Check out the goldenrods and other late blooming flowers at the Master Gardeners Idea Garden at the U of I Arboretum on south Lincoln Avenue in Urbana.

Chicago Botanic Gardens has an excellent document about goldenrod plant evaluations at http://www.chicagobotanic.org/downloads/planteval_notes/no15_goldenrods.pdf

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