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Goldenrod: The Wildflower with a Heart of Gold

Photo by Adobe Stock/?????? ??????

I’ve been fascinated by goldenrods since I wrote about them several years ago. At the time, I was working on two weekly blog posts and sought my material while taking my daily walk. During fall here in Ohio, nothing is more remarked upon in the landscape than the bright shocks of goldenrod. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To me, goldenrod is a beautiful and useful plant, to others it’s an accursed weed.

Deep in the Weeds

As a beekeeper, I’ve always looked forward to the goldenrod bloom. The plant is an important pollen and nectar source that helps our soon-to-be overwintering bees to stock up well just before retiring. Its bloom tells us that the beekeeping year and all its work is coming to an end. Soon the snow will fall and we’ll all be snug inside our respective homes waiting for spring.

In our café and apothecary, the story of goldenrod is a bit different. Many of our customers see goldenrod season as a time to suffer. I find myself repeating the news that a true goldenrod allergy is actually quite rare. Touching too much of the pollen can set off an attack of contact dermatitis in some, but otherwise it’s too heavy and sticky to become airborne. Nonetheless, this misapplied hatred is placed firmly on the shoulders of lovely yellow goldenrod, and thus it gets called a weed.

Goldenrod’s late bloom period helps bees stock up for winter.
Photo by Adobe Stock/?????? ??????

I find myself highly motivated to correct humans’ misunderstandings of the plant world. While out on my daily walks, I try to imagine how I can reframe the story. In the case of goldenrod, I had once used it in the case of a client who had lost muscle tone in her bladder. I clearly needed more ammunition if I wanted to encourage people to see it in a new light.

Rooting for Answers

Goldenrod is in the Asteraceae family. Due to this, it’s related to such common plants as New England aster, sunflowers, daisies, and burdock. There are at least 100 distinct species in the Solidago genus, but there are likely more out in the wild because goldenrods will happily hybridize. Most of these species are interchangeable in their usefulness in the body, though European goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) is mentioned most often. I learned to separate the goldenrods from the asters by looking for their bowed flower heads. The species that grow wild in my area have flower stalks that flop over by several inches at the top. Still, that bright-yellow shock of tiny daisy-like flowers is unmistakable. Goldenrod spreads easily by way of its roots, making it a particularly tenacious plant. It’s especially difficult if you want to remove it from your garden. In North America, it’s considered a weed, while in England it’s often a prized feature specimen. This is why we may fight it during an afternoon cleanup and then find its picture in our favorite nursery catalog.

The eye-catching plumes get a bad rap for causing seasonal allergies, but in most areas it’s ragweed pollen behind people’s itchy eyes and streaming noses.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Michael Meijer

I typically start learning about plants by researching their history and mythology. Goldenrod presented a bit of a problem, because it’s a distinctly North American native plant. Quite a lot of the uses and history of North American native plants have been lost or obscured, although there’s a hint of traditional usage in the Latin Solidago, which translates to “make whole” or “heal.” I found a particularly beautiful origin story about a young girl whose yellow dress fringe was turned into the first goldenrod plant in an effort to protect her from danger, but little else.

Throughout Native American literature, I found a preference for using goldenrod in issues with the kidneys and lungs. Many Native American tribes used goldenrod in a steam for respiratory complaints, or powdered it and used it topically to heal wounds.

Goldenrod is a rich food source for many pollinators.
Photo by Adobe Stock/butterfly-photos.org

Goldenrod is still used for its medicinal properties, but also much more. It’s considered an aromatic, carminative, stimulant, diaphoretic, astringent, diuretic, and antioxidant. The aboveground portions of the plant contain rutin, terpenes, flavonoids, saponins, and a phenolic glycoside. These active phytochemicals explain why goldenrod is so helpful with loss of tone in bladder muscles, urinary stones and infection, nonspecific yeast infection, arthritis, bleeding disorders, heart health and capillary weakness, digestive issues, hay fever, sore throat, and cold and congestion. It’s also indicated for homeopathic treatment of deafness, enlarged prostate, lack of ability to urinate, and sciatica.

While there are plenty of great reasons to appreciate this unassuming plant, I also discovered that goldenrod is the star of some pretty amazing American history.

Industrial Applications

The early 1900s saw Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and George Washington Carver, among other brilliant minds, rise to the top of their fields. Their names were familiar to me individually, but in researching goldenrod, I found that these men were greatly supportive of one another and cared about one another’s initiatives in a collaborative way. Edison was interested in energy, Ford in automotive innovation, and Carver in using regenerative agriculture to develop new cash crops and lift the South out of poverty. The humble goldenrod plant brought all of these men together to find a domestic source of rubber in the face of impending war.

Reconstructions of laboratory workrooms as they might have been set up for Edison’s experiments on extracting latex from goldenrod plants. 
Wikimedia Commons/Historic American Buildings Survey

In 1927, Ford, Edison, and Harvey Firestone formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation. Edison was quite a botanist, in addition to his other interests. He and his team began gathering likely latex-producing plant species for analysis. After examining over 17,000 specimens, the Solidago genus seemed most promising. Edison identified S. leavenworthii, a native Florida goldenrod, as a promising choice for development, and the foundation began a breeding program to develop a cultivar that could produce latex in large enough quantities to be useful industrially. The program resulted in a cultivar that yielded up to 12 percent rubber by weight, named S. edisoniana after Edison. George Washington Carver had greatly impressed Ford for years, and after Edison’s death, Ford and Carver began collaborating more closely. Eventually, Carver was put in charge of a lab in Detroit, putting his advanced plant knowledge to good use.

While working out the kinks of practical harvest and production waste issues, the inventors were opposed to the development of a petroleum-based synthetic rubber option. By World War II, petroleum rubber had been perfected and proved to be more cost-effective than natural latex. Goldenrod was pushed out of the spotlight.

 

Reconstructions of laboratory workrooms as they might have been set up for Edison’s experiments on extracting latex from goldenrod plants. 
Wikimedia Commons/Historic American Buildings Survey

Thomas Edison’s work on goldenrod still connects the New York Botanical Garden and his labs in Fort Myers, Florida. There, on permanent exhibit at the Ford and Edison Winter Estates, you can find some of the incredible work these men did together. Recently, Lisa Vargues, a curatorial assistant at the New York Botanical Garden, found not only many of the specimens involved in the project, but a handwritten letter from Edison full of hope about the progress of S. edisoniana in the herbarium archives there.

I can’t look at goldenrod as only a powerful medicinal herb anymore. Fall is filled with bright-yellow reminders that plants bring people together and are interwoven with human history in more ways than we can remember. Goldenrod reminds us that we need to take a closer look. The men involved in the domestic rubber project are giants in our nation’s history and were eager collaborators, but we often hear of them as lonely geniuses. One of goldenrod’s more unusual traits brought these men together, as surely other plants interlink other famous and not-so-famous figures. Now that you know more about it, I hope you’ll join me in seeing goldenrod as much more than a seasonal weed!

You can try out goldenrod’s healing abilities for yourself with Goldenrod Cough Syrup or Urinary Tract Infection Tea.


Dawn Combs is an ethnobotanist and herbalist. She’s the formulator at Mockingbird Meadows and chief soda jerk at her family’s unique storefront apothecary, Soda Pharm.

Published on Aug 27, 2019

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