Granted, summer is ending. But the goldenrod — brighter, more yellow than the sun — is letting loose across the countryside. Before the world gets all brown and gray, we get this blaze, amid the deepening shadows, to hold us over until spring.
It has several undeserved bad reputations. Sneezers, congested because of ragweed pollen, see goldenrod in blossom and blame it.
And because we don’t plan for it — it’s a native species that’s been here before native people wandered in — indignant gardeners can unleash their trowels at the sight of it.
“It’s seen as a weed,” said Gail Ridge, an entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven.
But a weed is often just a plant that people decide against. Goldenrod, in contrast, should be hailed, not pitied or scolded. It needs to be loved, not despised.
For it is one of the most important sources of pollen and nectar for insects in a world where those commodities are running dry. Honeybees keep making late-summer honey because of goldenrod. Bumblebees bumble around it and journeying monarch butterflies depend on it for food.
It also feeds the birds that feed on those insects, as well as seed-eaters like goldfinches, juncos and chickadees.
“It’s absolutely important,” said Mike Rice of Roxbury, who runs Mike’s Beehives, a apiary supply business. “It’s one of the main sources of pollen right now.”
“It’s a great source of food for bees and butterflies,” said Louise Washer, president of the Norwalk River Watershed Association.
Washer is one of the proponents of establishing Pollinator Pathways through the state’s communities. So she extols the virtues of goldenrod.
She and her Pollinator Pathways volunteers recently received a gift of $5,000 in native plants. One of their jobs was differentiating the different types of goldenrod.
“There are so many different species of it,” she said.
The goldenrod flowering along roadsides or framing stone walls is probably the species known as Canada goldenrod. But there are goldenrods growing along shorelines, in forests, in bogs. The Connecticut Botanical Society lists 26 species native to the state, including zig-zag, gray and licorice goldenrod.
Because people are now trying to garden with native plants, nurseries are beginning to sell both native and hybridized goldenrods to dwell in herby borders and sunny patches.
Lisa Turoczi, who owns the Earth Tones Nursery in Woodbury with her husband Kyle, said Earth Tones had 11 different varieties of goldenrod on hand.
Rather than depend on other growers, or out-of-state plants, Turoczi said the Earth Tones staff gathers seeds from local plants and propagates them. The native plants they sell are true natives.
Turoczi acknowledges having a variety of goldenrod allows gardeners to choose between the gentle and the bossy.
“Some are aggressive,” she said. “Identification is the key.”
Goldenrod plants are found around the world, with about 100 to 120 species native to North America. It’s the state flower of Kentucky and Nebraska, the state herb of Delaware.
It’s part of the aster family. Its genus name “Solidago’’ derives from the Latin word solidare — to strengthen, to make whole.
That’s because goldenrod, along with being beautiful and ecologically important, has also been used through the ages by Europeans and Native Americans for medicinal purposes, to heal wounds, as a diuretic and to sooth sore throats.
When the upstart Colonials dumped British tea into Boston Harbor and deprived themselves of Assam and Darjeeling, they made herbal teas called Liberty teas. Goldenrod was often part of the mix.
In Connecticut this year, goldenrod may be sacrificed in the efforts to stymie noxious, non-native invasive plants.
“This year, it’s been so wet that everything has been growing like crazy,” said Yonghao Li, a plant pathologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. “The goldenrod may be growing up with mugwort and get cut down.”
But the incipient fall allergy season has nothing to do with spring rains. It has to do with the changing light.
Ragweed, taking its cue from the sun, starts releasing billions of nearly invisible airborne grains of pollen in mid-August — just when goldenrod starts blooming. Hence the confusion among allergy sufferers.
“It always starts around August 15, give or take two days,” said Danbury allergist Dr. Richard Lee.
Goldenrod pollen is, in contrast, heavy and sticky. Laden pollinators carry it from flower to flower, fertilizing as they go along.
“It isn’t in the air,” Lee said. “It sticks to the body of the bee.”