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Don’t Blame Goldenrod!

Some stupid notions just won’t go away, like the Earth is flat (it is square), rub butter on a burn (use Duke’s mayonnaise), and Starship’s “We Built This City” is the best rock song of all time (it was “Muskrat Love”). Grumpy can forgive such errors, though, because none have anything to do with gardening. However, there is one horticultural calumny I will not abide—goldenrod causes hay fever. NO, IT DOESN’T.

When folks get stuffy noses and itchy eyes in late summer and early fall, they assume goldenrod is the culprit. Why? Because that’s when it blooms and all those flowers spray out pollen that floats through the air looking for people to make miserable. Just one problem with this. Goldenrod pollen is too heavy to float through the air. The flowers depend on insects like bees and butterflies to pollinate them. Goldenrod is innocent.

Well, then, what is responsible? The two plants shown below that bloom at the same time as goldenrod. Giant ragweed (top) and common ragweed (bottom).

Although they don’t look very much alike, both ragweeds belong to the genus Ambrosia. Giant ragweed has large, coarse, three-lobed leaves and grows up to 15 feet tall. Common ragweed has smaller, deeply cut, fern-like leaves and grows about three feet tall. Both bear spikes of small, inconspicuous, greenish flowers atop the foliage. These release clouds of pollen that are carried by the wind to your nose.

No one wants ragweed around, but many species of goldenrod make fine garden plants. These are clumping goldenrods, rather than running ones that can be invasive. All they need are sun and well-drained soil. They take heat, humidity, and drought exceptionally well and, as mentioned before, butterflies love the flowers.

The best garden goldenrod, in my always correct opinion, is the aptly named ‘Fireworks’ rough-leafed goldenrod (Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’). It grows three feet tall and features graceful, arching sprays of yellow flowers. You can find it in garden centers and online. Other good goldenrods include sweet goldenrod (S. odora), showy goldenrod (S. speciosa), tall goldenrod (S. altissima) – the state flower of Kentucky – and the hybrids ‘Cloth of Gold’ and ‘Goldenmosa.’ They make fine companions to other late bloomers, such as asters, fall salvias, ironweed, Joe-pye weed, and ornamental grasses.