Fall is a wonderful time of year in New England. Walking through meadows in September takes me back to my childhood growing up next to an old field. As much as apples and cider signify the start of fall, so does the explosion of the bright yellow flowers of goldenrod. It was an easy way to spend hours of enjoyment watching the various bees, flies, butterflies, beetles, and other insects that would visit these flowers. If you looked carefully, sometimes hidden among the yellow flowers is the goldenrod crab spider. The small yellow and white spider does not build a web, instead waiting, perfectly camouflaged, to strike at unsuspecting pollinators. We don’t always need to travel to far off places to take in nature such as the predator and prey dance between lions and wildebeest when you have a patch of goldenrod in the backyard. There is so much to see in our meadows. We can witness such a diversity of life supported by this group of plants called goldenrods.

At current count there are 19 species of goldenrod native to Maine. The scientific genus for goldenrods is Solidago. All these species are in the larger family, Asteraceae, including flowers such as asters, daisies, and sunflowers. Goldenrods are perennial wildflowers growing from rhizomes. Depending on the species, the plants can be as short as two inches or over three feet tall. Most have small yellow flowers, with one species in Maine having white flowers.

Goldenrods are often called the single most important plant for North American pollinator biodiversity. Over 100 species of butterflies and moths use goldenrods as their host plants for their larvae. Another 42 species of bees are goldenrod specialists visiting only these flowers. Other insect species bore into the stem of the goldenrod stimulating the plant to produce a “gall” or thickening of the stem. This gall provides a home for the egg to hatch, grow and eventually eat its way out. However, some parasitoid wasps search out these galls, laying their own eggs in the other larvae. These wasp larvae feed on the insect larvae, helping keep balance in the population. In late fall and winter, you can watch birds such as Black-capped Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers fly to goldenrods searching for insect larvae in these galls. This is just one of the many complex interactions that goldenrods host.

Many of our goldenrods are still common and easy to find in Maine. This is good news for the many pollinators that depend upon them. One goldenrod, Culter’s goldenrod, or Solidago leiocarpa, is listed as a State Threatened plant. Culter’s goldenrod is a low growing plant reaching a maximum height of 14 inches and is found only on high mountains in New England and New York.

Goldenrods have a long history in the United States and Europe of treating various aliments and conditions. According to Mont Sinai Health Centers, goldenrod was used on the skin to heal wounds and as a diuretic. People have used goldenrod to treat tuberculosis, diabetes, enlargement of the liver, gout, hemorrhoids, internal bleeding, asthma, and arthritis. The plant was also used as a mouth rinse to treat inflammation of the mouth and throat. Some modern studies suggest that properties in goldenrod may help reduce inflammation, relieve muscle spasms, fight infections and lower blood pressure. In Europe, one species of goldenrod is still currently used as a diuretic to help treat urinary tract inflammation and prevent kidney stones.

I also want to clear up a major misconception about goldenrods. All our goldenrods have heavy and sticky pollen that is not windblown, but instead transferred by insects. It is another plant blooming at the same time of year, ragweed, that is pollinated by the wind and causes distress among allergy sufferers.

Next time you are out taking a walk, stop and check out a patch of goldenrod. Several different species of goldenrod are easily found at almost all the Scarborough Land Trust preserves.

For comments or questions, contact Andrew Mackie at amackie@scarboroughlandtrust.org

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