Late goldenrod Solidago altissima, copyright Vilseskogen.

Belongs within: Astereae.

Published 9 May 2019

Growing up as a child in rural New Zealand, I remember the community social events that would sometimes be held at the local district hall. On one evening, if I recall correctly, the event being held was a quiz night modelled after then-popular game show It’s in the Bag. For those unfamiliar with this long-running institution, contestants on the show who successfully answered a series of general knowledge questions asked by Selwyn Toogood, a large avuncular man with an appropriately fruity voice, would be offered the choice between a cash prize up front or a ‘bag’ containing an unknown prize. This prize could potentially be something worth a lot more than the money on offer, such as a trip away or a home appliance (game shows in the 1980s often included whiteware among their top tier prizes). On the other hand, it could be worth a lot less, potentially even being effectively worthless (as viewers at home, of course, we always hoped for the latter). On this occasion, one of the ‘prizes’ on offer was a packet of seeds from ‘the pretty yellow flowers that grow so vigorously in the region’. Everyone in the audience would instantly recognise the flowers in question as ragwort Senecio jacobaea, a pernicious weed much maligned due to its toxicity to livestock. Ragwort probably arrived in New Zealand as a contaminant in grass seed, but for today’s post, I’m looking at another member of the daisy family which became a weed after being more deliberately spread around.

Tall goldenrod Solidago gigantea, copyright Pethan.

Solidago, the goldenrods, is a genus of perennial herbs with a woody caudex or rhizome and usually bright yellow flowers. About 100 to 120 species are currently recognised in the genus, the great majority of which are native to North America. Other species are found in South America and Eurasia, and a number of the North American species have been spread around the world by human activity. The number of species to be recognised is somewhat disputed because, as with many decent-sized plant genera, goldenrods have a tendency to laugh in the face in clear species concepts. Differences between species can be difficult to observe and hybrids are not uncommon. Individuals belonging to the same species may vary notably with geography and growth conditions and determining whether variation is genetic or environmental has historically required extensive growth experiments cultivating seed collections at varying locations. Vegetative spreading through rhizomes may lead to isolated populations of near-clonal individuals that may come to be recognised as ‘microspecies’. As a result, what one author may recognise as a number of distinct species may be treated by another author as variants of a single species. For example, a study of altitudinal variants of the European S. virgaurea in Poland by Kiełtyk & Mirek (2014) lead them to recognise two species that had previously been confused, the lowland S. virgaurea and the montane S. minuta. The two were best distinguished by relatively fine-scale features of the flower heads, most notably the number of tubular florets in each head.

Canada goldenrod Solidago canadensis, copyright Olivier Pichard.

In a review of the North American Solidago species, Semple & Cook (2006) divided the genus between two sections. The smaller section Ptarmicoidei, including only half a dozen species, is characterised by clustering of flower heads in flat-topped arrays. The remaining species in the much larger section Solidago may have heads in rounded, conical or club-shaped arrays, or bear flower heads in axillary clusters. The distinctiveness of section Ptarmicoidei is enough that some authors have placed it as a separate genus Oligoneuron. Research is ongoing concerning the phylogeny of Solidago and its precise relationships with related genera.

Historically, the European Solidago virgaurea was valued for its supposed medicinal qualities (hence the genus name, which can be translated as ‘becoming whole’). But while the dried flowers may still be used in making herbal tea, goldenrod does not seem to be currently regarded as of much pharmaceutical significance. As long ago as 1597, John Gerard noted in his Herball that the once highly prized herb had plummeted in value and regard once it was found to be growing wild in England, making it a mere local weed instead of an exotic import*. In the 1920s, Thomas Edison experimented with using goldenrod as a source of rubber. Investigations in this line were later continued in the 1940s by agrarian scientist George Washington Carver (under the patronage of Henry Ford), partially to counter rubber shortages during World War II. However, rubber yield from goldenrod is low and the rubber produced of low quality, so it never became a commercially significant source.

*‘…in my remembrance, I haue known the dried herbe which came from beyond the ſea ſold in Bucklersbury in London for halfe a crowne an ounce. But ſince it was found in Hampſtead wood, euen as it were at our townes end, no man will giue halfe a crowne for an hundred weight of it: which plainely ſetteth forth our inconſtancie and ſudden mutabilitie, eſteeming no longer of any thing, how pretious ſoeuer it be, than whileſt it is ſtrange and rare. This verifieth our Engliſh proverbe, Far fetcht and deare bought is beſt for Ladies.’

Woundwort Solidago virgaurea var. leiocarpa, copyright Alpsdrake.

As alluded to above, a number of North American goldenrod species have been carried to temperate regions around the world as ornamentals or to provide nectar for bees. Unfortunately, some of these species have become significant invasive weeds in their adopted homes. Canada goldenrod Solidago canadensis can have an allelopathic effect on surrounding vegetation, producing water-soluble compounds that may inhibit the germination and growth of seeds (Werner et al. 1980). It may also act as a reservoir for pathogens of crop plants. Goldenrod is also commonly accused of causing hay fever but, in this regard at least, it seems to be largely innocent. Goldenrod plants shed relatively little pollen; as the flowers are insect-pollinated, the pollen is relatively unlikely to enter the air column. Instead, it seems that the conspicuous goldenrod flowers are blamed for the more copious pollen shed by less visible plants such as ragweeds flowering at the same time.

Systematics of Solidago
    |--S. altissimaMH98
    |--S. californicaH93
    |--S. canadensisRU03
    |    |--S. c. ssp. canadensisH93
    |    `--S. c. ssp. elongataH93
    |--S. chilensisD03
    |--S. confinisH93
    |--S. giganteaK91
    |--S. graminifoliaM73
    |--S. guiradonisH93
    |--S. junceaM73
    |--S. multiradiataH93
    |--S. rugosaM47
    |--S. sempervirensM47
    |--S. sparsifloraH93
    |--S. spathulataH93
    |--S. spectabilis [incl. S. missouriensis]H93
    |--S. virgaureaMH98
    `--S. wrightiiBT72

*Type species of generic name indicated


[BT72] Baker, E. W., & D. M. Tuttle. 1972. New species and further notes on the Tetranychoidea mostly from the southwestern United States (Acarina: Tetranychidae and Tenuipalpidae). Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology 116: 1–37.

[D03] Dusén, P. 1903. The vegetation of western Patagonia. In: Scott, W. B. (ed.) Reports of the Princeton University Expeditions to Patagonia, 18961899 vol. 8. Botany pp. 1–34. The University: Princeton (New Jersey).

[H93] Hickman, J. C. (ed.) 1993. The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California. University of California Press: Berkeley (California).

Kiełtyk, P., & Z. Mirek. 2014. Taxonomy of the Solidago virgaurea group (Asteraceae) in Poland, with special reference to variability along an altitudinal gradient. Folia Geobotanica 49: 259–282.

[K91] Koehler, H. H. 1991. A five year study on the secondary succession of Gamasina on a ruderal site: the influence of recultivation. In: Dusbábek, F., & V. Bukva (eds) Modern Acarology: Proceedings of the VIII International Congress of Acarology, held in České Budĕjovice, Czechoslovakia, 6–11 August 1990 vol. 1 pp. 373–383. SPB Academic Publishing: The Hague.

[M73] Mason, L. G. 1973. The habitat and phenetic variation in Phymata americana Melin (Heteroptera). Systematic Zoology 22 (3): 271–279.

[M47] Mayr, E. 1947. Ecological factors in speciation. Evolution 1: 263-288.

[MH98] Morikawa, H., A. Higaki, M. Nohno, M. Takahashi, M. Kamada, M. Nakata, G. Toyohara, Y. Okamura, K. Matsui, S. Kitani, K. Fujita, K. Irifune & N. Goshima. 1998. More than a 600-fold variation in nitrogen dioxide assimilation among 217 plant taxa. Plant, Cell and Environment 21: 180–190.

[RU03] Roberts, R. P., & L. E. Urbatsch. 2003. Molecular phylogeny of Ericameria (Asteraceae, Astereae) based on nuclear ribosomal 3´ ETS and ITS sequence data. Taxon 52: 209–228.

Semple, J. C., & R. E. Cook. 2006. Solidago Linnaeus. In: Flora of North America Editorial Committee (eds) Flora of North America vol. 20. Asteraceae, part 2. Astereae and Senecioneae pp. 107–166. Oxford University Press: New York.

Werner, P. A., I. K. Bradbury & R. S. Gross. 1980. The biology of Canadian weeds. 45. Solidago canadensis L. Canadian Journal of Plant Science 60: 1393–1409.

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