By Audrey Stallsmith
What matter if we go clear to the west,
And come not through dry-shod?
For wilding brooch shall wet your breast
The rain-fresh goldenrod.
"A Line-Storm Song" by Robert Frost
Despite its sunny appearance, goldenrod can be a depressing flower. Since it doesn't like root disturbance, it most frequently appears in fields that are no longer being plowed--on abandoned farms. Because each plant produces thousands of seeds, goldenrod requires only a few undisturbed seasons to completely engulf an old home place.
Eyeing those acres of the wildflower, we country folks often comment glumly that it's a shame this particular crop can't be sold. Had Thomas Edison lived just a little longer, he might have been able to help us out with that. At the end of his life the great inventor was working on a plan to extract rubber from goldenrod. But that idea apparently died with him-more's the pity!
Still there are plenty of other uses that can be made of goldenrod. Its Latin name, solidago, after all, derives from solido ("to make whole"). This indicates that it once had a reputation as a healer. "It hath in times past," John Gerard wrote in 1597, 'beene had in greater estimation and regard than in these daies."
Goldenrod is still, James Duke reports in The Green Pharmacy one of the most effective diuretic-antiseptic herbs, which makes it ideal for the prevention of bladder infections and kidney stones. He also recommends it for the prevention or treatment of yeast infections. Perhaps its ability to ward off such problems is why the plant stands for "precaution" as well as "treasure" in the Language of Flowers.
Of course, the type mentioned by Gerard must have been the only native British variety, solidago virgaurea, which looks more like an aster than like our native goldenrod, solidago canadensis. Correction. One of our native goldenrods.
There are, supposedly, well over a hundred different species here in North America. A couple of the better known are solidago nemoralis, gray goldenrod, and solidago odora, sweet goldenrod. The Europeans enthusiastically add cultivars of many American types to their gardens, while we Yanks mostly conclude that we already have more than enough goldenrod!
Since its flowers are anti-inflammatory, the Zunis once chewed them to soothe sore throat. Goldenrod was also, Gerard wrote, "extolled above all other herbes for the stopping of bloud in bleeding wounds," winning it the nickname of woundwort. The wildflower has also been called Aaron's rod-probably in reference to the Biblical stick that miraculously budded overnight.
Goldenrod is an important source of nectar to honeybees as well as food to many types of butterflies. It's also popular as a dried flower and as a source of yellow dyes. In folklore it's generally supposed to indicate fortune or point the way to hidden springs. (As the plant doesn't like dry conditions, its presence does evidence an adequate water supply.)
This flower is, I'm afraid, among those things so common that we tend to either denigrate them or take them for granted. Gerard sharply rebuked "these new fangled fellows" to "esteeme better of this admirable plant than they have done, which no doubt have the same vertue now that then it had, although it growes so neere our owne homes in never so great quantity."
I once saw the plant in a different light myself when, in a poem about the somnolence of late summer, I wrote of "the ticking dream where/ Weeds are gilded with golden rods/ And ditches lavished with Queen Anne's Lace."
Plant plate and background is from Wild Flowers by Homer House, courtesy of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine.