(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 19, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
"I know the lands are lit with all the blaze of Goldenrod." ....Helen Hunt Jackson
Solidago altissima is the goldenrod that I grew up with in the mountains of southeast Kentucky. I am told that Kentucky has more than 30 of the nearly 100 identified Solidago species. I probably saw more than 30 myself while roaming those mountains, but I was too young to know the difference. Goldenrod was simply goldenrod, and it never made me sneeze. I loved the plant and the bright yellow blooms that showed themselves when we were close to summer's end. There are certain scents, not easy to describe, that we associate with fall, and the scent of the goldenrod is one that I remember.
It is Kentucky's state flower, and has been since 1926 when a group of Kentucky Women's Clubs stormed the state capitol and demanded that it be adopted because it is native to all of Kentucky. Not being a government that was ready to admit defeat brought about by a storm of women, the men hemmed and hawed around and finally agreed to adopt it. Not too many years later, though, goldenrod was nearly toppled from its throne by another bunch of more dignified manly creatures who decided goldenrod was beneath their dignity, and they wanted a flowering tree to be the state's blossom. The battle was on, would it be the dogwood or the redbud for the men, or would it be the goldenrod for the women? Well, of course you know the rest of the story. What man stands a chance when it comes to the choice of a flower? And what man has a chance when a woman makes up her mind? It was not easy and for awhile it looked like a royal knock down drag out battle would occur when the redbud was approved in the House, but at the last minute, it lost in the Senate. Goldenrod was back to take it's place among the most stately of all the flowers. Even now, goldenrod appears on the Kentucky state flag.
Before we go into the legends and the lore that surround goldenrod, I must tell you that it has no allergens. It is not goldenrod that brings on your fits of sneezing, but the inconspicuous ragweed that grows in the same conditions, the same area, and at the same time. The heavy sticky pollen of goldenrod is not wind-borne, because many different insects take over the task of its pollination. Even when my mother sealed her windows and turned the air filters as high as they would go every fall, I could never convince her that goldenrod had been wrongly accused.
Goldenrod flowers from August through November here in Kentucky. It is commonly found in fallow fields, bottomland, rocky outcrops, open woods, roadsides and railroads. It is very difficult to avoid with its huge clusters of tiny yellow flowers. The Chippewa Indians called it gizisomukiki, which means sun medicine. The plant has been mentioned medicinally for a number of ailments, among them it was considered a treatment for sores and cuts. Goldenrod has a long and colorful history throughout many parts of the world.
The Great Saladin (1137-93) who rose to be a caliph of Egypt, and who fought King Richard in the Third Crusade, greatly treasured goldenrod as a medicine. He introduced it to the Middle East and there it long remained as an important crop. When it was introduced as a medicinal herb in Elizabethan England, it commanded high prices. That was not very long lasting, however; when it was found growing wild its prices and popularity plummeted dramatically. Brews of goldenrod were also popular in history. In Europe, the leaves were concocted into a brew known as Blue Mountain Wine, and teas were brewed as well in North America particularly by Native Americans. After the Boston Tea Party, when the rebellious American colonists had dumped all their tea into Boston Harbor, they discovered they had lost their favorite beverage. Not to be deterred for very long, they found that an excellent tea could be made from the leaves of the North American goldenrod, and they named it Liberty Tea. There is another fact about goldenrod that has always been of interest to me, the flowers of the goldenrod can be made into a wonderful dye for cloth. If you are an artist, the dye can also be used much in the same way as watercolor when applied to porous papers; the same principle applies to other natural dyes as well. When I paint pictures of wildflowers, I often use natural dyes instead of watercolors.
Legends surround goldenrod. The stiff stem of the plant was historically used as a divining rod, but that was only successful if used by the right person. Another belief is whenever golden rod grows near a house, its occupants will have good fortune. Still another holds that wherever goldenrod grows, there can be found buried treasure.
My favorite legend was told to me by my Granny Ninna many years ago: "Two little girls were very close friends, one was golden blond and the other was dark haired with beautiful blue eyes. They were afraid that when they grew up they might be parted from each other, so they didn't want to grow up. To solve their problem, the two little girls set out one day to visit the good witch who lived across the field far away. They came to the good witch after a long day of travel and told her of their wish to always be together. The little girls were never seen again, but whenever you see the golden yellow bloom of the goldenrod you will be sure to find the sweet blue aster always beside her."
I do hope you will enjoy the beauty of goldenrod this season. Keep tissues handy because ragweed is sure to be lurking among all the golden blooms.
Also used as a source were the notes collected from my family.
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: pford, McGlory, and htop.