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Goldenrod (What Time is it in Nature)

October 4, 2015

Most of the flowers at Prairie Ridge have already bloomed and wilted this year, but as the summer shifts into fall we’ll see one last flush of blooms before the drabness of winter sets in.  The goldenrods are currently putting on a magnificent display of bright yellow flowers that turn the whole prairie into a sea of golden blooms!

Goldenrod in back prairie

Goldenrod on the prairie. Photo by Chris Goforth.

The goldenrods belong to the aster family of plants, Asteraceae, and the genus Solidago.  There are over 100 species in the genus and representatives are found throughout the United States and Mexico as well as parts of Canada.  In North Carolina, we have multiple species and they can be difficult to tell apart without a trained eye.  However, most goldenrods share certain characteristics, such as forming clusters of bright golden-yellow flowers that bloom in the late summer or fall at the tips of long stalks:

goldenrod flowers

Goldenrod flower cluster Photo by Chris Goforth.

Most species have long and narrow leaves , though some species have toothed leaf edges and some have smooth.  Many species also produce large amounts of nectar when the weather is moist.

Goldenrods are important plants for wildlife.  As a fall blooming plant that produces abundant nectar, they attract a huge variety of insects and other pollinators late in the season when few other nectar sources are available:

goldenrod with pollinators

Pollinators on goldenrod. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Butterflies, wasps, moths, bees, flies, beetles, and other insects visit the plants to sip nectar.  The plants also attract a wide variety of predatory insects and other arthropods, such as mantids and spiders, that take advantage of the abundance of insects coming in to feed at the flowers:

goldenrod with mantid

Mantid hunting on goldenrod. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Some birds and mammals are also known to take advantage of the plants.  Because it attracts such a huge variety of wildlife, goldenrods are popular plants for native plant gardens or wildlife/butterfly gardens.  They are also popular due to their bright, late season blooms, their resistance to deer, their tolerance to drought, and their low maintenance needs.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t address the misconception that goldenrod is highly allergenic and causes fall allergies.  This is not the case!  The pollen grains of goldenrod are too large and heavy to blow in the wind and are mostly moved around by insects.  This means that the pollen is rarely inhaled and therefore does not cause allergies in most people.  Ragweeds and other asters, however, often bloom just before goldenrod and some (such as ragweed) have a superficially similar appearance, leading many people to mistake these plants with goldenrod.  Ragweed is a wind pollinated plant.  Its pollen is readily inhaled and causes huge problems for many pollen allergy sufferers.  It is typically the source of fall pollen allergies, not goldenrod.

The goldenrod at Prairie Ridge is putting on a spectacular show this year!  For the best view, head down to the pond on your next visit and look off to the right of the water.  The whole field is ablaze in gold!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

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