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The Meadow at McKeon Reserve

Photo: Kevin McKeon

An Unbeatable Autumn Bloom for Pollinators

By Kevin McKeon, Maine Master Naturalist

The roadsides and fields of Sanford are lighting up with the bright yellow stalks of Solidago, or goldenrod, which blooms from August through fall. The goldenrod, or goldenrods, plural, is the common name for 19 species. They are a type of aster.

Legend has it that the two flowers were once girls who went to a witch to grant their wishes to live forever united and to make others always happy. One was a fiery blonde, the other had starry-blue eyes. They were never seen again in person, but every year they bloom together – the bright yellow goldenrod and the blue-petal aster.

Goldenrod’s pollen is heavy and sticky, so is not wind-blown, and does not cause hay fever attacks; those attacks are mostly caused by common ragweed, a wind-blown, pollen-heavy plant that blooms at the same time. Being an herb, goldenrod was historically used as a treatment for various conditions: inflammation, urinary tract infections, arthritis, skin conditions, as an antiseptic, and for many other purposes. Early colonists found that it made an excellent tea. Recent discoveries have found goldenrod to be an effective remedy for kidney stones and to slow the flow of blood.

Goldenrods naturally produce rubber. One variety, the Solidago altissima or Tall Goldenrod, produces 6.34% rubber content. Thomas Edison experimented with a cultivation process to increase rubber content in these plants and George Washington Carver and Henry Ford devised a process to make a much-needed rubber substitute during World War II using goldenrods.

Goldenrods are great plants for the garden. They are easy to care for and deter pests. The bright color lasts through late autumn. Plant goldenrods in the wilder areas or along borders to provide late-season nectar and protein-rich, sticky pollen for native pollinators. Few perennials are more ornamental or more durable, attracting pollinators in higher numbers than most other plant species. Native bees, butterflies, wasps, beetles, and spiders are frequent visitors. These creatures attract the birds and amphibians which feed not only on them, but also on the many pests we humans find annoying.

Look for fat, round growths on stems: the goldenrod gall fly lays its egg on a goldenrod stem. Upon hatching, the larva eats within the stem, and the larva’s saliva causes a reaction from the plant, forming a round enlargement—a gall—on the stem. The larva will chew an exit hole before the plant tissue hardens up for the winter. In the spring, the adult fly will exit through this hole—if it doesn’t get eaten by a hardy, over-wintering bird like a downy woodpecker or a chickadee that knows what to look for.

Visit the Meadow at McKeon Reserve on a sunny day. Stand quietly and listen to the bees and wasps collecting the pollen, watch the late season butterflies drink in the nectar, and marvel as the dragonflies on patrol catch anything they can. Drink in some Solidago pictures here.

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