An Apology to Goldenrod

I'm sorry, I didn't know...

My house in Maine is situated in the middle of a 12-acre wooded lot, near a small lake. The owners before us had clear-cut a circle about the size of an acre in the middle of the lot with a winding driveway leading up to it. When we first moved in, the center of the clearing had been half-heartedly cultivated, but most of the open area had been neglected and was quickly re-wilding. Succession plants that flourish in forest clearings were thriving, their root systems firmly entrenched in the thin, rocky soil.

I grew up in the western U.S. and had spent most of my adult years living in cities, so my immune system was totally unprepared for the array of foreign substances it was suddenly assaulted by during my first season in Maine. My allergies were at DEFCON 1, Red Alert, all guns blazing. I could hardly function. It was Autumn, so I figured it wasn’t tree pollen I was reacting to, and it was unlikely to be hay fever as there wasn’t a lot of grass. What I did see all around me was a profusion of vivid yellow plumes - Goldenrod – a plant I’d never encountered before. Each flower head is actually a composite of many, many tiny flowers that I thought (incorrectly) were spewing pollen into the breeze and making me sneeze. I set about ripping it out wherever I found it growing.

If I could go back in time, I would shake past me. I’d show her the field guides and ecology books I’ve read in the intervening years that extoll the virtues of this special genus. I’d reveal to her that, unlike its cousin Ragweed, Goldenrod is not wind pollinated, and what I am actually allergic to is mold, which coats everything in a mesic forest. I’d tell her that this is the trade-off for living in the woods and hand her a value pack of Flonase.

Now, five years later, at least two different species of Goldenrod are coming back to the areas of the clearing where I have ceased my interventions. It is still not as plentiful as it was before, and in some areas, less desirable and opportunistic invasives have grown up in its absence. Walking amongst the plants that are thriving, you can almost feel the vibrations from all the visiting insects. It’s painfully clear to me now what an important flower this is to the ecosystem. Dozens of insect species make use of Goldenrod, from bees and wasps to flies and butterflies, even beetles. When it’s spent, and its flowers have gone to seed, small birds and rodents will take their turn.

I take heart in the fact that Goldenrods, like many composite flowers, have a special evolutionary advantage. A single insect can make contact with hundreds of flowers simultaneously by visiting one flowerhead, which results in very efficient cross-pollination. That cross-pollination results in genetic variability, which means that the seeds produced by these plants contain diverse genetic traits that make them adaptable to different growing environments. So no matter where their seeds are spread, chances are good that at least some of them will be well-poised to succeed where they land. Hopefully, without my meddling, these plants, and the other natives that I’ve learned to appreciate, will return to transform this anomalous clearing in the forest into a healthier habitat for more species than my own.

Some additional factoids: Various indigenous tribes used Goldenrod as a yellow dye and as medicine. The Zuni chewed the blossoms, slowly swallowing the juice to relieve sore throats. The Alabama used the roots as a poultice on aching teeth. Other tribes made infusions of the flowers and leaves for fevers and chest pains or into lotion for bee stings and other painful swellings. Modern medicine still makes use of its compounds which include saponins - used to combat urinary tract and vaginal infections - and flavonoid antioxidants – used to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. Studies are being conducted to isolate the compound/s that may contribute to its anti-inflammatory properties, as well as to determine if it can be used in cancer treatments.

Sources:

Eastern Forests by John Kricher and Gordon Morrison, from The Peterson Field Guide Series, 1988

National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Wildflowers by Richard Spellenberg, from Alfred A. Knopf, 2001

The Rodale Herb Book edited by William H. Hylton from Rodale Press Inc., 1974

Goldenrod: Benefits, Dosage, and Precautions by Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD for Healthline.com, 2019