Last Blaze of Summer

In the spirit of “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” the goldenrods (Solidago) are widely dismissed as weeds or worse in the United States, but planted as highly prized perennials in the United Kingdom and Europe. There are at least 85 species in North America and only about three in Europe, which may contribute to the perception.

Solidago altissima

Goldenrod is widely blamed for causing hay fever, which a trip to a field full of Solidago will show you is not true; the goldenrod plants are humming with bees and all sorts of other pollinating insects. It is the wind-pollinated ragweed (Ambrosia) that causes hay fever. These plants flower at the same time as goldenrod (late summer and fall), but their flowers are an innocuous greenish color, and the plants are shorter than goldenrod. It therefore goes unnoticed and observers blame the more prominent plants for their wheezing, sneezing and general misery.

Solidago graminifolia

In our meadow garden in the middle of a rural village in upstate New York we have about four different species of Solidago. The easiest one to differentiate from the rest is the lance-leaved goldenrod (S. graminifolia), which as its name suggests has smooth, narrow leaves and flowers grouped in flat-topped clusters.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the sharp-leaved goldenrod (S. arguta), which has broad, ovate, toothed leaves that have a rougher texture than the lance-leaved species. The flowers of S. arguta are borne in one-side arching clusters that form large terminal inflorescences.

Solidago odorata (sweet goldenrod)

Late goldenrod (S. gigantea) has leaves that are lance-shaped but broader and rougher than those of S. graminifolia. The plant is also much taller on occasion, as its trivial name suggests. It can reach seven feet tall, according to Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, but the plants in my garden aren’t more than five and a half feet tall.

S. gigantea flowers are one-side sprays like S. arguta’s, but are fewer, less arched and less showy. There may be other species out there, but I haven’t had the patience to key them out. They can be told apart largely based on leaf shape and texture, the pattern of veination, and whether or not the shape of the leaves changes from the basal to the higher parts of the plant.

Goldenrod has many advantages as an addition to perennial beds. The different species provide varying textures because of their leaf shape and the architecture of their inflorescences. These are native plants and therefore adapted to the climate and the herbivorous insects of North America. They tolerate drought and spread both vegetatively (via their root mat) and by seeding themselves. In addition to the wild types there are cultivars with even more impressive and showy flowers.

One of the principles of the “English country garden” design is to add height and exuberance to your garden. Goldenrod meets both of these criteria in that it is often several feet tall and grows in profusion, flowering for weeks every year.

William Robinson

William Robinson, one of the main proponents of the English country garden, was reacting to the strictures and geometry of Victorian garden design. His design theory paralleled the Arts & Crafts movement begun by William Morris and carried on by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury group. His The Wild Garden (1870) encouraged people to create transitions from the pastoral vernacular landscape into the designed space of a garden. Every edge or transition became an opportunity to plant perennials and shrubs. Robinson was not a nativist; he did not insist on the use of native plants. On the contrary, he was one of the prominent proponents of the use of North American goldenrods and asters in British gardens. There is one native British goldenrod (S. virgaurea or woundwort) but it is not often used in perennial beds. Although the English country garden is exuberant looking, it is not wild. Robinson urged his disciples to keep their plantings under control, but to make sure that this restraint was as invisible as possible. The goldenrods spread rapidly in most settings and unwanted plants have to be dug out.

In the preface to The English Flower Garden and Home Grounds (1906) Robinson wrote:

“The aim [of design is] to make the garden a reflex of the beauty of the great garden of the world itself, and to prove that the true way to happiest design is not to have any stereotyped style for all flower gardens, but that the best kind of garden should arise out of its site and conditions as happily as a primrose out of a cool bank.”