Attracting Pollinators with the Goldenrods

goldenrod and insects: Bumblebee on Goldenrod
goldenrod and insects: Bumblebee on Goldenrod

Goldenrods make great plants to attract butterflies and pollinators to your naturalist garden or backyard habitat. 

The numerous small flowers of goldenrods are filled with nectar. Those many small flowers are filled with pollen, too.

This means the flowers attract a wide variety of nectar-sipping, pollen-eating bees, beetles, butterflies, moths, flies, and wasps.

In my backyard the late summer and early fall activity on goldenrods is fascinating to watch. Tiny bees and flies hungrily feed on the numerous flowers. If you are having trouble deciding if an insect is a bee or a fly, check out this post.

Planting a few key plants that bloom in the late summer into fall is key to attracting plenty of insect and pollinator activity. I think some of the best plants to fill this bill are the goldenrods, asters, coneflowers, and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’.

There are many varieties and species of just those native plants to grow in your garden. In this post, I’ll focus on the goldenrods.

The Goldenrod (Solidago) flower family consists of over 130 species of sunny yellow plumes nodding in the late summer wind. Solidago is pronounced, (Sol-eh-day’-go).

The goldenrods are mostly golden yellow in color with a few species with white blossoms. The plumes are made up of many small flowers lined up in rows along the stem.

Goldenrods stand tall rather than lean over or trail along the ground. Their heights vary from three to seven feet tall. They have upright woody stems.

The golden yellow blooms flower from August through September. The blooms provide nectar for fall migrating insects like Monarch butterflies. Insects that are frantically preparing for the winter visit the blooms for pollen and nectar.

Goldenrod Native Habitats

Goldenrods are largely a North American plant family with a few species that are native to Eurasia, the Azores, and South America.

In North America there are over 130 species that are native to one end of the land mass to the other.

There is a goldenrod species that will fit right in to most North American gardens.  There are bound to be several species native to your region.

And those species native to your region are best choices to attract your local pollinators and butterflies.

Goldenrods are found in open fields and roadsides. These plants like soil that isn’t too nutrient rich. They like average to poor nutrient but well-drained soils. This is why you see robust stands of goldenrods along roadsides and in ditches.

Goldenrod are good plants for borders, meadows, butterfly, and pollinator gardens.

Collecting the Seeds

Goldenrods are generally easy-to-grow from seeds. Goldenrod seeds can be purchased or you can collect your own.

Goldenrods are often sold at native plant sales of environmental organizations and nurseries. The plants are extremely easy to grow in a wide range of conditions.

The seeds ripen in the fall. Collect goldenrod seeds when the seed heads have finished flowering and turned brown. The heads become fluffy as the seeds begin to disperse.

The seeds disperse pollinators. The seeds are too large and sticky to be carried by the wind.

Collect the seeds in an envelope or bag that will keep them dry. Make sure the seeds are completely dry. Storing the seeds in the freezer is a good way to keep them viable to plant them the following spring. But if the seeds contain water or moisture, the freezing them will cause the seeds to split and die. Then the seeds won’t germinate when planted.

The goldenrods seeds are mostly likely to germinate if they have been cold stratified. Cold Stratifying is keeping the seeds in cold, moist temperatures of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 90 days. After this the seeds can be sown like any other flower seed in the spring.

You can direct sow the seeds in the ground or start them in pots or containers.

Goldenrods species  have two spreading characteristics. For you non-gardeners, this means how the roots grow. Some goldenrods spread by multiplying the rhizomes, or fleshy roots. Rhizomes grow into large masses of roots. And goldenrods that spread by rhizomes spread rapidly. Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulus) spreads by rhizomes.

But other goldenrods are better behaved in the garden. They spread by slower-growing clumps. Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) is a clumper.

This is something to think about when you place your plants. Maybe place the plants in a pot or in a spot where you won’t mind if they spread. Now you know why the are large stands of them by the roadsides, some species spread quickly by rhizomes.

Goldenrods are easily divided. When you divide a plant you dig up the plant and break apart the roots. The roots should have some shoots growing from them. Then you can replant the roots, spacing them apart from each other The plants should multiply as they grow and fill in the bare spots.

This means you can start out with one or two plants and have a vibrant stand of plants in a few growing seasons.

Common Ragweed.
Common Ragweed. Homer Edward Price / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Goldenrods  Allergies? – No, the Real Culprit is Ragweed

Goldenrod often gets a bum rap from people who think it causes hay fever. The goldenrod pollen are sticky and heavy. The pollen grains weigh too much to be carried by the wind. Pollinating insects transport pollen grains between plants to aid in fertilization.

The allergy and hay fever causing pollen is from ragweed not goldenrods. Ragweed blooms at the same time as the goldenrods. Ragweed is the real culprit that causes hay fever and seasonal sneezing.

If you search for ragweed on the Internet there are many photos that are misidentified. A quick internet search showed many goldenrods identified as ragweed.

This is a photo of Giant Ragweed flowers. The flowers are tiny, the pollen is even smaller. Small and tiny enough to get up your nose. 

Flowers_of_giant_ragweed
the tiny inconspicuous flowers of Giant Ragweed.

To see more photos of actual ragweed, on the USDA Plant Database with accurate information.

Compare these two photos, one of ragweed and one of goldenrod.

See the differences? Ragweed flowers are green. Goldenrod are yellow. Goldenrod flowers are easily seen. Ragweed flowers are tiny with tiny pollen carried by the wind.

Attracting Pollinators with Goldenrods

I shot the video at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education’s now defunct front garden in late August. The insects were all over the plant.

Goldenrod is an important fall pollinator plant.  If you watch the golden plumes of goldenrods, you’ll see many tiny flies, bees, beetles, wasps, and butterflies moving through the blossoms.

Goldenrod flowers are nectar rich. Bees are attracted to the nectar.

Monarch butterflies enjoy the sweet nectar, especially the nectar of Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens). Adult butterflies don’t eat pollen, so they only sip the nectar.

See aslo the post on Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict With Flowers Insects Will Like.

goldenrod and insects: Red-banded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops) butterfly and Ailanthus Webworm Moth (atteva punctella) on Goldenrod.

Goldenrods to Attract Caterpillars, Butterflies, and Moths Your Garden

Goldenrods a good food source for larva and adult butterflies and moths. The hostplants will allow butterflies and moths to complete their life cycles in your garden.

The butterflies that are known to use Solidago species as hostplants include:

  • Baltimore (Euphydryas phaeton)
  • Creamy Checkerspot (Chlosyne palla)
  • Eastern Checkerspot (Chlosyne harrisii)
  • Pearly Checkerspot (Chlosyne gabbii)
  • Streamside Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis)

Moths that use Solidago species as their hostplant include:

  • Dart Moths (various species)
  • Goldenrod Gall Moth (Epiblema scudderiana)
  • Oblique-striped Emerald Moth (Synchlora bistriaria)
Goldenrod (1)
goldenrod plumes

Five Great Goldenrods for Your Garden

These five species are useful in gardens. You can usually find them in nurseries that sell native plants. Goldenrods in general are easy to start from seeds. I have found goldenrod seeds for sale online, at nurseries, native plant botanical gardens shops, and sanctuaries.

Rough-leaved Goldenrod or Rough-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)

  • Color: golden yellow
  • Blooms from summer to early fall
  • Natural range: Newfoundland to Florida, west to Michigan, Missouri, and Texas
  • Height: 24 to 72 inches tall
  • Soil moist to dry; Sun: full sun to partial sun
  • Caterpillars hosted: Baltimore, Silvery Checkerspot
  • Butterflies attracted to nectar: American Lady and Swallowtails
  • Notes: This an aggressive grower, I would plant it in a meadow or other area it can roam freely.

Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens)

  • Color: golden yellow
  • Blooms from late August through September
  • Natural range: Nova Scotia south into Central America
  • Height: 2 to 4 feet tall
  • Soil: sandy, well-drained; Sun: full to partial sun
  • Caterpillars hosted: Baltimore, Silvery Checkerspot
  • Butterflies attracted: Monarch, Juniper Hairstreak, Sachem, Silver-spotted Silver
  • Notes: This plant needs to grow in poor sandy soil to look its’ best.

Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)

  • Color: light yellow
  • Blooms: July through September
  • Natural range: Massachusetts to southern New Hampshire to Minnesota nd Wyoming, south to Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, and New Mexico
  • Height: 24 to 60 inches tall
  • Soil: moist to dry; Sun: sun to partial sun
  • Caterpillars hosted: undocumented
  • Butterflies attracted: many

Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida)

  • Color: golden yellow
  • Blooms July through September
  • Natural range: Massachusetts to Alberta, south to New Mexico and Georgia
  • Height: 2 to 5 feet tall
  • Soil: moist to dry; Sun: full to partial sun
  • Caterpillars hosted: Dart Moth (Tricholita notata)
  • Butterflies attracted: many
  • Notes: The seeds are good for birds in the fall. The plant has abundant pollen and nectar and attracts a wide variety of beetles, flies, bees, and wasps. It does not spread rapidly like goldenrods with rhizomes, it grows in a clump.

Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis)

  • Color: golden yellow
  • Blooms: August through September
  • Soil: moist to dry; Sun: sun to shade
  • Caterpillars hosted: Brown Hooded Owlet (Cucuilla convexipervis) Twirler Moth (Gnorimoschema gallaaeasterella) Bilobed Dichomeris (Dichomeris bilobella)
  • Butterflies attracted: many
  • Notes: The nectar is important for many types of insect. Both short and long tongued bees can access the nectar. Bumble bees, mostly males visit the plant for nectar. The plant is very shade tolerant and spreads by rhizomes. This woodland native is well suited to growing in the shade.
goldenrod
goldenrod stem in my garden. Photo to Donna L. Long

Attracting Birds

Goldenrod species form enough seeds to be a useful food source for birds. Also keep in mind that if you have plants that attract the foods birds eat (insects, spiders, etc.), birds will arrive looking for a meal.

So, those goldenrods with copious amounts of nectar or pollen will be full of insects which will attract birds looking for insects and spiders to feed their chicks.

As the weather cools down, the insects disappear. But, the many goldenrod flowers mature into numerous seed-filled capsules.

The seeds will come later after the insects are gone with the arrival of cooler weather. So, leave the dead plants standing through fall and winter so the birds can eat the seeds.

The small seeds of goldenrods will attract the small seed-eating birds such as the small finches. Finches have conical seed-cracking bills. The small finches that may enjoy goldenrods include:

    1. White-throated Sparrows
    2. Chipping Sparrows
    3. House Sparrows
    4. Buntings
    5. Juncos
    6. Siskins
    7. Redpolls
  1. Towhees
  2. House Finches
  3. Goldfinches
  4. Purple Finches
  5. Cassin’s Finches

See also The Relationships Between Birds, Berries, and Fruit , Garden Flowers to Attract Birds or Attracting Birds to Your Garden 

IMG_0836

What Other Plants Grow Well with Goldenrods?

The fall or autumn is the time for many plants to bloom. They provide nectar for migrating butterflies and insects getting ready for winter.

Sedums, asters, milkweeds, coneflowers and many other plants bloom at the same time.

I have a list of Summer-into-fall Blooming Plants (pdf).

To be successful, take note of a plants growing habits.  Place plants with similar growing habits in the same growing bed or area. Plants that spread rapidly can stand up to each other.

If you pair a slow-growing clumping plant with a fast-spreader right next to it, the fast spread will probably outgrow and overtake the clumper.

Slow Spreading Goldenrods will probably work with plants with a clumping growth habit.

  • Silverrod (Solidago bicolor) – slow-spreading
  • Rough-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) – slow-spreading
  • Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) – slow-spreading
  • False Goldenrod (Solidago sphacelata) – slow-spreading
  • Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) – grows in a clump.

If you are still learning about native plants my long list of Summer-into-Fall Blooming Plants can be overwhelming. I choose a couple of my favorites to make it a bit easier.

Fall Blooming Flowers that Grow Well with Goldenrods (all with a Spreading Growth Habit)

  • Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
  • Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
  • Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)
  • Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii)

Fall Blooming Flowers that Grow Well with Goldenrods (all with a Clumping Growth Habit)

  • New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae)
  • Swamp Milkweed (Ascelpias incarnate)
  • Northern Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa)

Goldenrods can do double and triple duty in your backyard habitat garden. Just match the species to your growing conditions. Put clumping plants in with other clumping plants.

These plants seem to capture the last sunny days of summer in the bright golden yellow color of their leaves. Along with the deep purples, pinks, and blues of other fall-blooming flowers and the brilliant color of the trees, your garden can be a riot of fall color.

And the flowers, a buffet of nectar and pollen for pollinators.

I hope you find this post useful. As always, feel free to leave a comment below if you have a question or comment.

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