(This 863rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 7, 2007.)
One of the plumelike goldenrods
Recently Sue Ensign of Akron wrote to suggest that I write a column about goldenrod. Her message continued, "I think that goldenrod is beautiful and always hope that some will pop up in my flower beds to add some fall interest to fading perennials. I wonder though if people really look at goldenrod -- all the different ones in this part of the country. Recently I took my wildflower guide into the yard and found at least five different varieties. Most people think of them as obnoxious weeds and I think that some still blame them for hay fever. They should be appreciated."
Although I have written columns about goldenrods in the past, I am happy to respond to Sue's suggestion as I too am a goldenrod fan.
First, let me support her concern about the mistaken association of goldenrod with hay fever. Goldenrod is indeed not guilty. Because it blooms at the same time of year as the real culprit, ragweed, it has long been misidentified as another party to the pollen-induced fall sneezes that effect one in ten of us.
Pollen, the vehicle for plant reproduction, must find its way from male to female plant parts. Since the plants are immobile this migration must be accomplished by outside forces. Most pollen is either windborne or carried by animals, the most common of which are insects. The pollen of only a few plants is waterborne. Windborne pollen is light; animal-carried pollen much heavier.
Ragweed pollen is of the light airborne variety; heavyweight goldenrod pollen is mostly carried by bees. It is in fact a major source for the fall bee production of honey. The only way you could get hay fever from goldenrod would be to rub it or one of those bees on your nose. Case closed.
Before his unfortunate death, Norm Zika was one of the finest amateur wildflower specialists in this region. Because I so respected his ability, I once asked him what group of wildflowers he found most difficult to identify. "That's easy," he told me, "Goldenrods. There are so many, they are so similar, they hybridize and botanists have even bred garden varieties, that I have great trouble separating them."
The Peterson and McKenny field guide tries to simplify goldenrod identification by separating the species into five groups: plumelike and graceful, elm-branched, clublike and showy, wandlike and slender, and flat-topped. Although I have trouble using those categories, they may help some botanists. But even if you correctly sort a goldenrod into one of those groups, you then must check leaves and stems to find the correct species. If you follow this course or if you use the key in the Newcomb guide to find which of the dozens of species found here, I wish you luck.
Meanwhile I'll go with Norm Zika. I am satisfied simply to call these lovely wildflowers goldenrods.
The scientific name for the goldenrod genus is solidago, which derives from the Latin "to make whole." This, according to Jack Sanders, "refers to their supposed medicinal benefits." He continues: "The Chippewa Indians had an even better name for the goldenrod family in general. They called it gizisomukiki, which translates as 'sun medicine.' The plant has been used to calm stomachs, allay nausea, pass stones, and cure wounds, and to treat diphtheria, bronchitis and tuberculosis."
The English herbalist, Mrs. M. Grieve, writes of a goldenrod concoction: "It is recorded that in 1788 a boy of ten, after taking the infusion for some months, passed quantities of gravel, fifteen large stones weighing up to 1 1/4 ounces, and fifty over the size of a pea." Perhaps that youngster grew up to be our own Cardiff giant.
At this time of year and aside from the asters, the widespread goldenrods are, if not the only game in town, surely the major game. Thus their ample nectar and pollen attract all kinds of insects. Donald and Lillian Stokes list, in addition to honeybees, bumblebees, paper wasps, locust borers, syrphid flies, and soldier and longhorned beetles. Ambush bugs and crab spiders in turn feed on these visitors.
Our national flower emblem is the rose. Especially at this time of year, I much prefer the more plebian but beautiful goldenrod.-- Gerry Rising