(The following essay begins the July chapter of my soon-to-be-published book, The New England Gardener’s Year (Cadent Publishing). Updated previews of the book can be read on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/negardener.
“The sun has shown on the earth, and the goldenrod is his fruit.”
– Henry David Thoreau
On the wall in our dining room is a photograph of a butterfly, a Harris’ checkerspot, its wings folded while it sips nectar from sulfur yellow flowers. When I take the time to stop and really see this image, I remember the day that I captured it.
I was in the garden of a friend, looking through a drift of metallic-blue globe-shaped flowers that filled an island bed to the golden-tasseled plants just beyond the garden’s edge, blue and gold together, a classic color combination achieved by chance. The globe thistle (Echinops ritro) had been planted by the gardener, the wild goldenrod (Solidago sp.) sown by the wind.
It was a blue-sky summer day without a breeze, but the stems holding blue and gold flowers to the sun swayed back and forth under the weight of bumblebees and butterflies, tiny wasps, native bees, beetles, every imaginable pollinating insect. I spent the better part of the morning among them, trying to capture it all.
Why is it that if there are goldenrods in the picture, they are usually in the background, at the edge of the garden, seldom part of the border or bed, seldom on center stage? English gardeners have long recognized the garden worth of goldenrods, but it has been a hard sell to American gardeners who think of them as weeds at best, the cause of hay fever at worst.
Goldenrod is guilty only by association of the later charge, flowering at the same time as ragweed, the true cause of hay fever. Goldenrod pollen is too heavy, too sticky to be borne on the wind; hence the dependence on pollinating insects.
We owe to English hybridizers the existence of early cultivars such as ‘Golden Baby’, a compact, clumping goldenrod about two feet high with upright sprays of golden flowers from August through October; ‘Golden Dwarf’ with yellow flowers on foot-high stems; ‘Cloth of Gold’ with golden blossoms on 18-inch stems, flowering in late summer; and ‘Golden Mosa’ with lemon yellow flowers on 30-inch stems.
While these early hybrids are still available, the list of goldenrod cultivars has grown substantially over the years. I am partial to the native species and their cultivars. One highly rated cultivar is ‘Fireworks’, selected from S. rugosa, a species native to Maine. It features tiny, bright yellow flowers borne in dense, plume-like panicles on the ends of stiff stems over three feet tall. In addition to attracting butterflies and other pollinating insects, the seeds are eaten by goldfinches and pine siskins.
Goldenrods are more than single season perennials. Their dried stalks make handsome additions to winter bouquets. Choose stems with only about one-third of the blossoms open and hang them in a dark but well-ventilated room to air-dry. The flowers will remain in the condition they were in when picked.
Few winter scenes are more beautiful than a patch of goldenrods, their dry seed heads coated in ice or dusted with new snow. I look forward to viewing this scene from the family room window, my back to the wood stove.
Or perhaps I will go out to visit the winter goldenrods and look for galls, insect-caused swellings found on goldenrod stems that serve as winter homes for Eurosta solidaginis, a fruit fly. Thoreau contemplated this relationship between plant and animal, writing the following in July, 1853: “The animal signifies its wishes by a touch, and the plant, instead of going on to blossom and bear its normal fruit, devotes itself to the service of the insect and becomes its cradle and food. It suggests that Nature is a kind of gall, that the Creator stung her and man is the grub she is destined to house and feed.”