Botany and Identifying Characteristics
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 tribe 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
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.
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 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 (the Senecio genus and its relatives are described below in the look-alike section).
It is 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. 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. Leaves vary in shape by species. The stems do not typically branch (until they begin to flower). Being an aster family member, goldenrod has its yellow inflorescence arranged in flower heads comprising disc and ray florets (anywhere from several to thirty florets per head, depending on species). The flower heads (miniature structures that look like “flowers” to the untrained eye) are typically 0.4 inch (1 cm) or less in width (although there are plenty of exceptions—for example, S. virgaurea). The inflorescence is most typically a raceme or panicle, but can be a corymb.
Related Species and Look-Alikes: 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), which 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, the damage is already done.
I wish there were some easy way to differentiate goldenrod species from the Senecio tribe, 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.
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 the seed 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 our garden gates unlatched.
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 growing 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 gardening 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
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. 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.
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 just have 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 the 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.
Edibility 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.
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 used 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, treat burns, and slow bleeding.
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. 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 also has an affinity for the urinary tract and is used as a diuretic, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory to treat 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 below.) The diuretic quality of goldenrod is also helpful in treating edema, gout, and kidney stones.7
Goldenrod has been historically used by Native American peoples—and 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 to treat boils and for open sores and skin irritations.8 Various species of goldenrod have been used as a wash for thrush and as a toothache remedy.
Internally, many species of goldenrod have been used to treat diarrhea—likely because of the tannins and antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory actions. Matthew Wood writes about the plant, “Solidago is bitter, warm, and pungent, a combination ideally suited for use as a carminative—that is, for stimulating and increasing digestion.”10
Other: 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
Urinary Tract Back on Track Tea
This tea blend is helpful for treating the symptoms and the root cause (primarily, bacterial infection) of urinary tract infections (UTIs). The herbs in this formula provide relief through their demulcent, astringent, and anti-inflammatory actions (soothing to inflamed urinary mucosa). They are also antimicrobial and diuretic (which helps flush out the bacteria). Corn silk is one of the primary remedies I turn to for urinary tract inflammation and pain—it’s highly cooling and soothing, along with being demulcent and diuretic. You can dry your own by saving the silk when shucking organically grown sweet corn. Uva-ursi is, in my experience, the most useful antimicrobial and astringent herb for UTIs. Of any herb, it’s the most likely to effectively throw off the bacteria causing an infection.
It’s important that the tea be drunk at room temperature, which augments the herbs’ diuretic effect. It is prudent to take an immune-stimulating tincture—along with the tea—to enhance the body’s innate immune efforts in combatting the bacterial infection. Good immune-stimulating medicinals for UTIs include echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), spilanthes (Acmella oleracea), and usnea (Usnea spp.) Additionally, you can drink unsweetened cranberry and blueberry juice along with the tea. Avoid sugar and natural sweeteners until the infection clears.
If the infection worsens or fails to clear up after five days, consult your health care provider—antibiotics may be necessary. If you develop a fever or lower back pain, you may have a kidney infection; seek immediate medical attention, as kidney infections have the potential to irreparably damage the kidneys and are best treated by antibiotics. Most UTIs are caused by bacteria found in the vagina and perianal area, but sometimes they are caused by a sexually transmitted infection (STI). If you have had unprotected sex, or your partner has potentially had unprotected sex, you’ll want to rule out an STI as the cause of infection.
- 1 Tablespoon marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis)
- 2 Tablespoons corn silk (Zea mays)
- 1 Tablespoon goldenrod flowering herb (Solidago spp.)
- 1 1⁄2 Tablespoons uva-ursi herb (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
If the uva-ursi leaf is whole, crush it with a mortar and pestle or grind in a coffee grinder. Add the uva-ursi and marshmallow root to 32 ounces (1 L) of water. Simmer for twenty minutes. Turn off the heat and add the corn silk and goldenrod. Infuse covered until the tea cools to room temperature and strain. Adults may drink up to 4 cups (32 ounces or 1 L) a day. The measurements in this blend are for dried cut and sifted herbs (store-bought). If you’re using homegrown or wildcrafted herbs—or fresh herbs—use larger quantities.
Free and Clear Sinuses Formula
This blend is helpful as an internal remedy for sinus congestion due to allergies, head colds, or sinus infections. It is very drying and decongesting, and therefore isn’t the best remedy for the beginning stages of a cold (when runny mucus can help expel pesky viruses) or for those who run dry. The herbs can be taken in tea form, instead of tincture, but the tea will be unpalatable to some because of its astringency and bitter flavor. For people who run dry, add marshmallow and licorice root to the formula. Licorice is contraindicated in pregnancy, water retention, heart conditions, and high blood pressure.
- 1 part tincture yarrow flower (Achillea millefolium)
- 2 parts tincture goldenrod flowering herb (Solidago spp.)
- 2 parts tincture elder flower (Sambucus canadensis)
- 1 part tincture nettles leaf (Urtica dioica)
Combine all the tinctures, using the above proportions. For a larger batch (yielding 8 ounces, or 236 ml), use 1 ounce (30 ml) of tincture as 1 part (for example, you would add 1 ounce each of yarrow and nettles to 2 ounces each of goldenrod and elder). For a smaller batch (yielding 1.4 ounces, or 40 ml), use 5 ml as 1 part (for example, you would add 5 ml each of yarrow and nettles and 10 ml each of goldenrod and elder). You’ll need a glass beaker for the smaller measurements.
Use fresh tinctures if possible (1:2 95%), but you can substitute dried tinctures or use different preparations for each tincture. Combine all tinctures and store in a glass dispensing bottle. Dosage is 4 ml (4⁄5 of a teaspoon) three times a day. For short-term, acute use, lasting no more than three days, you can take 3 ml (3⁄5 of a teaspoon) up to six times a day.
Precautions 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.11 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).
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1. Bruton-Seal, J., and Seal, M. The Herbalist’s Bible: John Parkinson’s Lost Classic Rediscovered (Skyhorse Publishing Company, 2014).
2. Cullina, W. The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000).
3. “Goldenrod.” Chicago Botanic Garden website. http://www.chicagobotanic.org/plantinfo/goldenrod. Accessed June 10, 2015.
4. Jacke, D., and Toensmeier, E. Edible Forest Gardens. (Chelsea Green, 2005).
5. Shepherd, M., and Vaughn, M. Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies: The Xerces Society Guide (Storey Publishing, 2011).
6. Holm, H. Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants (Pollination Press, 2014).
7. McIntyre, A. The Complete Herbal Tutor: The Ideal Companion for Study and Practice (Octopus Books, 2010).
8. Moerman, D. E. Native American Ethnobotany (Timber Press, 1998).
9. 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).
10. Wood, M. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants (North Atlantic Books, 2008).
11. Mills, S., and Bone, K. The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety (Elsevier Health Sciences, 2005).