Gardening Nature’s Way: What’s Great About Goldenrod? | The Harvard Press | Features | Feature Articles
As interest in native plants grows, gardeners and environmentalists are trying to rehabilitate the image of the goldenrod, wildflowers of the Solidago genus of the Asteraceae family. In fact, at the base of local food webs, goldenrods are arguably the most environmentally beneficial herbaceous plants we can propagate in Harvard courtyards and public spaces.
To learn more about using goldenrod to improve ecological functions and add color to the garden, I interviewed Adam Kohl, a Wendell-based naturalist. In addition to his work of conducting ecological field studies, Kohl also works as a conservation officer for the town of Wendell and operates a native plant nursery in which he grows a variety of goldenrods. I started by asking Kohl why Solidago is considered a keystone species, a linchpin in local ecosystems (according to author and professor Doug Tallamy, renowned expert in plant-insect interactions).
Kohl explained that the relationship between butterflies and moths and Solidago has attracted a lot of attention. (The Native Plant Finder feature on the National Wildlife Federation website – the work of Tallamy and his research assistant – lists Solidago as the host for 125 species of butterflies and moths, including the larval stage; in turn, land birds feed their young almost exclusively on caterpillars.) According to Kohl, Solidago also serves as a host for leaf miner flies and 11 specialized bees – from four genera – which collect Solidago pollen to supply their nests.
“There was one night my kids and I went out [with a headlamp] and we counted over 100 moths in less than a few minutes visiting the flowers of Solidago rugosa. Goldenrods are very accessible for nighttime pollination. They’re like giant landing pads with tons of flowers, moths hanging out right there, and nectar.
Galls on goldenrod plants offer evidence of the plant’s close relationship with insects: these commonly seen growths of plant tissue are produced by flies or moths that require Solidago for their life cycle, Kohl explained. New findings about such relationships continue to emerge. For example, Kohl said that some species of Solidago have evergreen basal foliage. “There is a micromoth (Bucculatrix sp., Probably B. staintonella) which exploits these evergreen leaves as larvae throughout the winter. This is a finding that seems new to science, and I’m working on rearing larvae to confirm the moth with Charley Eiseman, but it at least looks like a new host plant record.
Given the serious concern about the decline of insects raised in several academic and popular journals in recent years (including a January 2021 symposium at the National Academy of Sciences), Kohl’s observations should encourage us all to plant more rod. Golden. The late summer beauty, however, has an image problem, Kohl notes: “A lot of times people are immediately turned off when you try to sell them a goldenrod. The first concern is with allergies, and you need to let people know that this is just a myth, that they don’t cause allergies. In fact, they can protect against allergies by consuming healthy flowers in the form of tea ”(which Kohl also enjoys). Many people associate goldenrod with aggressive growth patterns. Kohl says that to help people appreciate goldenrods, he tries to explain the range of species and how goldenrods are diverse and varied.
Catherine Warner is a passionate home gardener who started out following her father into the garden and later worked on an organic farm while studying at university. After a detour as an academic historian, she now stays at home with her son and is a member of the Garden Club of Harvard and the Community Resiliency Working Group.