Goldenrod Benefits: The Bee’s Knees for Allergies, Sinus Infections, and Urinary Tract Infections
Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
(except where credited)
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Identifying Goldenrod Flowers
Scientific Name: Solidago spp.
Plant Family: Asteraceae, aster family
Other Common Names: Goldruthe, woundwort, Aaron’s rod, and solidago
Introduction: Each fall, all across North America, goldenrod lights up meadows and fields with a refreshing blend of ruggedness and jubilation. In addition to the sunshine it lends to the landscape, its flowers attract native pollinators and beneficial insects. Goldenrod’s piney-tasting leaves and flowers are an important medicinal remedy for the urinary, digestive, and respiratory systems. The goldenrod genus encompasses one hundred species of late-blooming, knee- or hip-high herbaceous perennials.
Goldenrod is imbued with a decided botanical exceptionalism—heralding primarily from America, where it has been employed for centuries as a medicine, dye plant, and beverage tea. Although most goldenrod species are native to North America, a few species are native to Eurasia and South America. European goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) is an important folk remedy for lessening bleeding and diarrhea and healing wounds—earning it the name woundwort.1
Goldenrod’s Range: Look for goldenrod in meadows, fields, and open woods and along trailsides and waysides. The range varies by species—most anyone in North America has at least several local species that are abundant. A few species of goldenrod have escaped cultivation in Europe and China. Solidago virgaurea is found across most of Europe, western Asia, and North Africa. It is grown as a garden flower and medicinal, which has likely expanded its range over the past few centuries.
Goldenrod Identification: Crush a goldenrod leaf when the plant is in bloom to familiarize yourself with its unique aroma. I detect hints of resin and seaside in the fragrance; a perfect blend of salt and balsam. If you have multiple species growing in your region, get to know their nuances by tasting and smelling the leaves (after you’ve properly identified the plant to be goldenrod!). Some varieties are more bitter, others more astringent, and some specialize in resinous flavors. Sweet goldenrod (S. odora) possesses honeyed hints of anise or licorice and is a prized beverage tea.
Any goldenrod species can be used medicinally, and identification to the species level is not essential—this is welcome news, as they readily hybridize and are generally considered difficult to identify to species. However, make sure you have properly identified your species as a true goldenrod in the Solidago genus! Proper identification to genus is crucial as there are yellow-flowered aster family members that are deadly toxic, including ragwort and groundsel (these belong to the Senecio genus and its close relatives, which are described below in the look-alike section). It’s difficult to describe the characteristics of such a large group of plants—a local field guide is indispensable for identifying the species found in your area.
Leaves: Goldenrod plants have alternate, simple leaves that can be entire or slightly toothed, hairy or smooth. Leaves are typically longer closer to the base of the plants, but they vary in shape by species. The stems typically do not branch until they begin to flower.
Flowers: Goldenrod’s flowering top (its inflorescence) is made up of a cluster of yellow flower heads. These flower heads look like a single flower to the untrained eye, but each one is actually comprised of up to thirty individual flowers, called disc and ray florets. If you look closely, this pattern can easily be seen in some of goldenrod’s relatives, such as sunflower and calendula. The flower heads are typically 0.4 inch (1 cm) or less in width, although there are plenty of exceptions—for example, S. virgaurea. The inflorescence (flowering stalk) is most typically arranged in a raceme or panicle, but can be a corymb.
Goldenrod’s Look-Alikes and Related Species: Goldenrod has a number of look-alikes, some of which are deadly poisonous. There is a large group of plants variably called groundsel, life root, staggerweed, ragwort, and a slew of other regional names. These were historically placed in the Senecio genus, which is one of the largest genera of flowering plants, with over 1,200 species. The genus is in botanical flux, with many species being reclassified into new genera (over thirty new genera have been separated from the Senecio genus!). Obviously, we can’t go over all the Senecio species—and their close relatives—but it’s good for you to familiarize yourself with the group and also to remember that goldenrod does have some deadly look-alikes.
Not all of the Senecio members are toxic, but the ones that are poisonous have harmful pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), compounds that can cause irreparable damage to the livers of both humans and livestock. PAs are particularly insidious because the symptoms of poisoning can be hard to detect (they are similar to those of many other illnesses) and can take months to manifest. Often, by the time symptoms present themselves, the damage is already done.
I wish there were some easy way to differentiate goldenrod species from the Senecio genus, but I haven’t found any rule that holds true for the wide range of species. In general, however, ragworts or groundsels have fewer flower heads than Solidago species. Senecio flower heads are typically larger than the miniature Solidago flower heads (which are usually smaller than 0.4 inch [1 cm] across), and Senecio species often bloom earlier in the season than goldenrod. But there are plenty of exceptions, so these differences are not hard and fast. Again, because the groundsels are such a large group of plants, it’s prudent to get to know the genus (and its relatives) and become familiar with the species in your area before you harvest goldenrod.
The Difference Between Ragweed and Goldenrod: Goldenrod has been wrongly accused of causing hay fever simply because of its close association with the actual culprit: ragweed (Ambrosia spp.). Both plants flower at the same time, but ragweed has demure green flowers which are easily overlooked—so, by default or guilty association, goldenrod takes the heat. Common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) has lacy-looking leaves that are divided and the plant branches freely. In contrast, goldenrod often has an unbranched stem (until it flowers) and its leaves aren’t divided. (For the record, ragweed isn’t all bad. Despite its propensity to induce a hissy fit in allergy sufferers’ nasal passages, ragweed is a native plant that plays an important ecological role—housing and feeding many insects.)
Compared to the wind-born pollen of ragweed (the better to find your nostrils, my dear), sailing through the air with golden abandon, goldenrod is insect-pollinated and doesn’t release its pollen into the air; therefore, you need to stick your nose right in its face to induce any kind of histamine reaction.
How to Grow Goldenrod
Zones: Varies by species, so look for natives to your bioregion (there are many to choose from in zones 3–9); full sun to part shade
Soil: Varies by species
Size: Varies by species, but generally 2 to 5 feet (0.6–1.5 m) tall; some goldenrods spread aggressively by runners, and some species modestly clump (expand in girth annually)
Propagation: Stratify goldenrod seeds for three months before planting and sow on the surface of the soil; do not bury seed. Softwood cuttings, consisting of four to six nodes, taken in late spring, have a high percentage of successful rooting. Divide the roots in spring or early summer. Plants transplant well early in the season.
Siting and Garden Care: Until recently, North American gardeners scoffed at inviting this “weed” into the tended landscape. Meanwhile, in Europe, goldenrod has received a warm welcome in the garden and has been planted widely for upward of three centuries. European breeders took goldenrod under their wings and emerged with showy cultivars fit for the finest of cottage gardens. Like any self-respecting opportunistic plant that thrives on disturbance, goldenrod jumped the confines of cultivation and promptly spread into European fields and meadows. Gardeners in North America are now recognizing that goldenrod’s commonness need not detract from its desirability as an ornamental. Gardening provides many nuggets of wisdom if we can simply manage to keep the garden gates of our minds well-oiled.
With a diversity of species to choose from and native habitats ranging from bog, to alpine meadow, to maritime dunes, you can be sure to find one that will thrive in most any niche. Goldenrod is a mainstay in meadow gardens and is especially delightful when grown next to its familiar, purple-blooming sidekick ironweed (Vernonia spp.). (See the photo of the two chumming it up.) Other possible native companions include common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), and Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum and E. maculatum). For massing, consider planting fast-spreading species, such as rough-stemmed goldenrod (S. rugosa), showy goldenrod (S. speciosa), tall goldenrod (S. altissima), and Canadian goldenrod (S. canadensis).2
If your garden space is limited, try one of the more demure clumping species, such as sweet goldenrod (S. odora) or any of the varieties described below. In a trial of goldenrod species conducted by the Chicago Botanic Gardens, S. rugosa ‘Fireworks’ was a choice cultivar, with its resistance to powdery mildew, slowly spreading habit, and explosive display of golden panicles. Other leaders include the hybrids ‘Baby Sun’ and ‘Goldkind,’ both with tight-clumping habits and generous floral displays. S. sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’ is a late-flowering variety with heart-shaped leaves. Finally, for the partial shade garden, consider the variegated S. flexicaulis ‘Variegata,’ which is a modestly spreading species rather than a clumping one.3
Goldenrod flowers in the late summer to early fall, at a time when most gardens could really use some perkiness. Spend just a few moments observing the pollinators flocking to the golden sprays, and you will appreciate how important a role it plays in sustaining local insect populations. Goldenrod supports over one hundred species of caterpillars, making it a useful plant for calling in local butterfly populations. It also attracts garden beneficials, such as praying mantises, ladybugs, assassin bugs, damsel bugs, syrphid flies, and parasitic wasps. The nectar is popular with many butterflies, including monarchs.4,5,6
Problem Insects and Diseases: Goldenrod is often affected by powdery mildew and rust. See the choice cultivars listed above, which have demonstrated good resistance against both diseases.
Harvesting: Harvest plants with healthy-looking leaves—that haven’t been affected by powdery mildew or other diseases—when they’re just beginning to flower. Harvesting at the beginning of flowering ensures that your dried blooms retain their yellow hue. If you harvest the plants in full bloom, the flowers will mature into their fluffy seed heads as they dry, and you’ll be left with dull puffs instead of golden floral cheer! For goldenrod species that have several stems, I like to leave half the stems intact—for the pollinators and for the plants to continue to photosynthesize. For species that have just one stem, I prefer to cut the stem halfway down, leaving some vegetation to photosynthesize for the remainder of the season. You’ll want to make sure that the species you’re harvesting is abundant, and be sure to leave the majority of plants in one area untouched. If you’re harvesting non-native goldenrod, these same cautions do not necessarily apply. Hang the plants to dry, and strip the leaves and flowers from the stem when they are crisp.
If powdery mildew is a big problem in your area, consider harvesting goldenrod leaves earlier in the season before the mildew takes hold. Just make sure of your identification, as you won’t have the characteristic flowers present.
Goldenrod’s Culinary Uses and Preparation
Goldenrod’s resiny flavor nicely melds with both vinegar and honey. Meadowsweet and goldenrod make a lovely pair in mead or as a naturally fermented homemade soda. See the recipes at the end of this article.
Goldenrod Medicinal Uses
Part Used: Flowering herb (leaves and flowers)
Medicinal Preparations: Tea, tincture, vinegar, infused honey, syrup, mead, elixir, cordial, and homemade soda
Tincture ratios and dosage: Fresh flowering herb (1:2 95%) or dry flowering herb (1:4 60%); either preparation 2–4 ml three times a day
Infusion ratios and dosage: Infusion of 1–2 teaspoons (5–10 ml) of the dried leaves and flowers per 1 cup (240 ml) of boiling water, up to three times a day
Actions: Diuretic, anticatarrhal, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, astringent, carminative, vulnerary, and diaphoretic7
Energetics: Warming and drying
Medicinal Uses: Much of what we know about goldenrod’s medicinal uses comes from Native American peoples, who traditionally use various goldenrod species for a number of ailments, both topically and internally. Goldenrod is an important dermatological aid for sores, infections, toothache, burns, and wounds. Internally, it is used for a number of urinary, respiratory, and digestive ailments. The medicinal use by over a dozen Native groups for close to twenty species of goldenrod has been documented, with overlapping usage between species.8 It is likely that even more species are used, considering the plant’s versatility and widespread distribution. Interestingly, many tribes use the root medicinally—a use not shared by most contemporary Western herbalists.
Although any species of goldenrod can be employed medicinally, aroma, taste, and medicinal qualities vary between species. The overarching uses are similar, but it’s up to you to discover their individual nuances and develop a personal relationship with the species you grow or forage. Some species are more pleasant as a beverage tea, and some are more astringent. The latter group will be more serviceable internally to slow diarrhea and topically to disinfect, relieve burns, and slow bleeding.
Goldenrod as a Sinus Remedy: Goldenrod is a premier decongestant, effectively alleviating upper respiratory congestion stemming from allergies, sinusitis, flu, or the common cold. It can be taken as a tea, syrup, or tincture for this purpose. In my experience, it is one of the strongest herbs for drying the sinuses. To relieve sinus pain and congestion, please see my Free and Clear Goldenrod Tincture Formula. Combine goldenrod with sage (Salvia officinalis) in a strong infusion for a gargle that can be used for sore throats, thrush, and laryngitis.7
Goldenrod as Urinary Tract Remedy: Goldenrod also has an affinity for the urinary tract and is used as a diuretic, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory as a remedy for urinary tract infections. For urinary tract infections, I combine goldenrod, marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), corn silk (Zea mays), and uva-ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) in equal parts to prepare a tea, which is drunk at room temperature (see the recipe here). The diuretic quality of goldenrod may also help to relieve edema, gout, and kidney stones.7
Goldenrod as a Wound Remedy: Goldenrod is used by Native American peoples—and was adopted by European settlers—as a wash or poultice to help heal wounds, burns, open sores, and cuts. The vulnerary uses of the plant inspired the scientific name Solidago, which means “to make whole.”9 John Parkinson wrote of European goldenrod (S. virgaurea) in 1640, “It is the most soveraigne woundherbe of many, and can doe as much therein as any, both inwardly for wounds and hurts in the body, and for either greene wounds, quickly to cure them, or old sores and ulcers, that are hardly to be cured.”1 Parkinson recommended a decoction of the herb to help “fasten the teeth that are loose in the gummes.” The Kawaiisu people use a decoction of the leaves of S. californica on boils, open sores, and skin irritations.8 Various species of goldenrod have been used as a wash for thrush and as a toothache remedy.
Goldenrod as a Digestive Remedy: Internally, many species of goldenrod have been used to quell diarrhea—likely because of their tannins and antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory actions. Solidago species are typically bitter, warming, and pungent, which makes them useful carminative herbs for stimulating and improving digestion.
Other Goldenrod Uses: Freshly picked goldenrod flowers lend a cheery splash of gold to bouquets, and the dried flowers are absolutely lovely in wreaths and everlasting bouquets. Pick the flowers before they are fully open to retain the golden hue. When I was pregnant with my daughter, my hormones enchanted me: I became obsessed with growing and arranging dried flowers. Dried goldenrod and sweet Annie (Artemisia annua) were my favorite fillers for wreaths. The blooms are used to dye silk and wool, lending a golden to olive-green color, depending on the type of mordant employed.
Graceful, tossing plume of glowing gold,
Waving lonely on the rocky ledge;
Leaning seaward, lovely to behold,
Clinging to the high cliff ’s ragged edge.
—Celia Thaxter, Seaside Goldenrod
Safety and Contraindications: Goldenrod can be overly drying as a beverage or tonic tea for people with a dry constitution, as it is diuretic, astringent, and decongestant. Short-term usage shouldn’t be a problem. Do not use in pregnancy. Although rare, goldenrod has caused allergic contact dermatitis after both handling and oral administration.10 Those with Asteraceae allergies should exercise caution with goldenrod. Be sure you are harvesting a true Solidago species because there are deadly look-alikes (see the Related Species and Look-Alikes section above).
Ready to bring goldenrod home to your kitchen and apothecary? See two of my personal recipes below, plus a special goldenrod round-up featuring a selection of recipes and tutorials from respected fellow plant enthusiasts:
- Goldenrod Tea: An Herbal Blend for Urinary Tract Infections
- Goldenrod Tincture: A Sinus Formula for Allergies, Colds, and Flu
- Goldenrod Round-Up
- Bruton-Seal, J., and Seal, M. The Herbalist’s Bible: John Parkinson’s Lost Classic Rediscovered (Skyhorse Publishing Company, 2014).
- Cullina, W. The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000).
- "Goldenrod." Chicago Botanic Garden website. http://www.chicagobotanic.org/plantinfo/goldenrod. Accessed June 10, 2015.
- Jacke, D., and Toensmeier, E. Edible Forest Gardens. (Chelsea Green, 2005).
- Shepherd, M., and Vaughn, M. Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies: The Xerces Society Guide (Storey Publishing, 2011).
- Holm, H. Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants (Pollination Press, 2014).
- McIntyre, A. The Complete Herbal Tutor: The Ideal Companion for Study and Practice (Octopus Books, 2010).
- Moerman, D. E. Native American Ethnobotany (Timber Press, 1998).
- Grieve, M. A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs, and Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses, vol. 2 (Courier Corporation, 1971).
- Mills, S., and Bone, K. The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety (Elsevier Health Sciences, 2005).
Meet the Green Mastermind Behind Blog Castanea:
JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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