“You’ll know it’s time for school to begin when the goldenrod blooms,” my father told me. We were walking on a country road near our home in Pennsylvania, and the golden blossoms had just begun to emerge. Stung by the thought that these leisurely walks to pick blackberries and listen to my father’s bits of folk wisdom about the natural world were soon to give way to school days, I began to gather a bouquet of the flowers. I wanted to shore up some of this unnamed precious time against the regimented rhythms of the school year, with its days spent indoors, ruled by human-forged schedules and deadlines.
This past week the banks of the Millrace have been infused with gold, offset by hints of royal purple here and there. Honeybees burrow in the blossoms. You wouldn’t know there is a worldwide bee crisis if you confined yourself to the Millrace. Goldenrod, or Solidago, provides essential late-summer nourishment for honeybees, monarchs, fireflies, chickadees and all manner of birds and insects, even white-tailed deer. Nectar-lovers are feeding everywhere.
The past few years the Goshen School Corporation has jumped ahead of the goldenrod rhythms in favor of a “balanced” calendar, for its first day of school. Students had already been busy with worksheets, tests and rehearsals for almost a month before the sprawl of nectar-laden blossoms on leggy stems transformed the Millrace. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel a nostalgic tug toward a way of life that honors natural rhythms. Perhaps we’ll have to start telling schoolchildren to prepare for a return from holiday when the black raspberries are ripe (mid-July).
Solidago is a genus, related to the Aster (Asteraceae) family, with 130 species in North America. The word comes from medieval Latin and means “to make whole.” Goldenrods bloom so abundantly we mistake them for weeds, but they are considered a garden flower in Europe. When visiting Germany a few years ago, I was greeted at the doorstep of my apartment with a stand of leggy goldenrod and felt a deep connection with my home.
Besides providing essential nutrition and shelter to valuable insects, birds and wildlife, goldenrod has a legacy as a healing herb. The University of Maryland Medical Center website lists the conditions goldenrod has been used to treat: arthritis, gout, allergies, colds and flu, inflammation of the bladder or kidney, kidney stones, eczema and the healing of minor wounds and skin conditions. Wait . . . treat allergies?
“Get that out of here!” my usually gentle mother almost shouted when my father and I arrived home from our walk, laden with bouquets of goldenrod, asters and jewel-weed. Crushed, I opened my mouth to argue, tears welling up in my eyes. She apologized, but remained firm. The flowers had to go. They would certainly trigger her allergies and she wouldn’t be able to live in the house. However, in researching this post, I have learned that she was laboring under a common misconception.
Contrary to popular opinion, goldenrod does not cause hay fever or other allergies. Rather, it is ragweed, a different plant entirely, that is the culprit. Also a member of the Aster family, ragweed is from the genus Ambrosia, ironically named for nectar of the gods. Ragweed blossoms are silvery gray to greenish-yellow, but they grow on leggy stems, like goldenrod, and they bloom around the same time. But even bees avoid ragweed—it’s an invasive, not a wildflower.
It’s entirely possible that my father and I might have picked some ragweed for our bouquets since neither of us had allergies—my mother had cause for concern. But after all these years I’m happy to exonerate goldenrod and to present it to you as a vital nurturer in our ecosystem. Let’s make sure that when we try to rid ourselves of “weeds” we look more closely at them so that we don’t ignorantly kill off plants with the potential to “make us whole.”