The Secret Life of Goldenrod

To the Goldenrod

Lower that glad Summer gleams with charm indue,

With conjuring rods evoking saffron dyes,

To vest nude hills in joy of hue,

To paint with cheer the vale’s sad view,

And point above to freedom’s sapphire skies-

Our Nation’s beams now summon thee,

For growth of liberty aglow to stand,

Her figured strength in bloom to be-

In garlands sun-wrought for the free,

An aureate ensign on her golden land!

Henry O’Meara-Ballads of America

During the late summer and early autumn one of the most dominant landscape features in New England are old fields dominated by the blistering yellow color of our native goldenrods. Many a photographer has tried to capture pastoral scenes of these yellow fields, bordered by bright fall foliage, next to a treasured red New England barn.

Goldenrods are such a common feature of the natural landscape that most of us tend to overlook their complex life. This common, but interesting, plant species truly has a secret life!

The goldenrod plant has a bad and undeserved reputation in that it is often associated with hay fever and allergies. The pollen from goldenrod is far too heavy to be carried by the wind and therefore it is not responsible for these nasty ailments. Unfortunately it blooms at the same time as ragweed that has a very light and wind borne pollen. The ragweed pollen distribution is the true cause of these maladies.

New England is blessed with many types of goldenrod. Tall goldenrod, late goldenrod, Canada goldenrod, rough-stemmed goldenrod, Elliot’s goldenrod, and swamp goldenrod are a few of the goldenrod species common to our area. Each goldenrod has its own individual preference for where it grows. Some goldenrods grow in wet soils and some in dry soils, some like a little shade and some like full sun.

Goldenrods tend to dominate old agricultural fields to the point where few other plants can grow in these areas with any great success. This happens for two reasons: first, the goldenrod plant is allelopathic meaning it emits chemicals into the soil to prohibit other plants from growing. Walnut trees and Norway maple trees are examples of two other allelopathic plants. Goldenrods emit phenol into the soil, a very effective chemical to eliminate or discourage most, but not all, other plants from growing. The second reason goldenrods dominate old fields is because they are clonal, meaning they spread voraciously by underground rhizomes and by heavy seed production. The goldenrods growing from rhizomes form plants that are genetically identical to the parent plant.

Goldenrods can be hosts to the stem gall-fly. These insects use the goldenrod for reproduction and incubation. After mating the female stem gall-fly utilizes a special adaptive body part called an ovipositor to inject the goldenrod stem with chemicals that cause rapid cell division in the plant stem. This cancerous growth caused by the chemical deposition forms a gall in about three weeks after the injection. This gall appears on the stem as an ovate structure, usually 3-4 times the normal stem diameter. Eggs are deposited in the same area simultaneously. The gall has a hull that is comprised of a cork like material. The inner part of the gall is comprised of plant tissues that provide nutrition to the fly larvae.

While the gall grows the eggs hatch and the larvae excavates a central living chamber within the gall. The larvae will remain in the gall until the following spring. The larvae actually excavate an exit tunnel for use the following spring.

Interestingly, the same species of stem gall-fly will utilize different types of goldenrod. Offspring of the gall-fly parent will only utilize the same species of goldenrod. This is an interesting survival tool in that it encourages evolution of the species by isolating individual species so that the overall species does not become quickly homogenized. This allows individual groups within a species to evolve along different pathways and therefore increase the chances of survival to diseases and environmental circumstances to which they may become exposed. Amongst most animal species this “speciation” occurs because of geographic isolation. The stem gall-fly can accomplish this same principal within the same field by utilizing several different species of goldenrod on which they form the galls. There is also new research that indicates some stem gall flies will only make galls on clonal plants that are genetically identical to a parent plant on which their formative galls were located.

The secret life of the goldenrod plot thickens as the gall-fly wasp comes onto the scene. There are several different species of wasp that predate the stem gall-fly. Each has a slighty different strategy for taking advantage of the gall-fly. One of the more common wasps penetrates a developed goldenrod gall with its own ovipositor and inserts fertilized wasp eggs. The larva that develops from these eggs first feeds on the stem gall fly larvae and then utilizes the nutritive value of the gall’s interior to survive the winter months.

In the natural world, each plant has its own ecological and evolutionary story. Some are obvious and some are not. As with many plants, the goldenrod has complexities that ecologists and botanists are still trying to understand. Some of these mysteries can be beneficial to humankind. For example, medical scientists have studied the chemical secretions emited by the stem gall-fly that cause the rapid cell division in the goldenrod stem in an effort to better understand cancerous rapid cell division in animals.

Goldenrods are some of our most common plants. They are easily recognized, yet they hold secrets that may not be obvious to the causal observer. As we attempt to unravel the secret life of the goldenrod we can hope to make discoveries that will not only improve the human condition but also gain a better understanding of the mysteries of the natural world around us.

Originally written for the Heath Herald in 2001.

  • Sandy

    I was worried for a minute. If you are already seeing goldenrod, this summer is going faster than I thought.  Thanks for explaining the galls. I have many, but never investigated. I guess I was right about what they were, though.  We have at least five kinds of goldenrod in our back field. I like it, it goes well with the blue asters blooming at the same time. 

  • Teresa Evangeline

     I found this very interesting. Then interdependency of nature has always intrigued me. That middle photo is stunning.  And I love the title.

  • Emily B

    Identifying goldenrod is as much a part of my summer childhood memories as dandelions. Some people see them as pests, but that color! I enjoy it. I also love this quote: “They are easily recognized, yet they hold secrets that may not be obvious to the causal observer.”  Probably it’s because of my recent travels, but I couldn’t help thinking about this in light of people, teenagers especially. We so often see something we “know,” and then skip right on. I like the lesson you have here, Bill: not so fast.    :)

  • Ssweeney4440

    Very interesting.  These secrets are the reasons why we have to work so hard, I think, to preserve our natural diversity.  The truth is we haven’t got even a glimmer of a clue about how the ecology actually works, so we have no idea what is “safe” for human tinkering.   

  • Wild_Bill

     Yes, there are quite a few goldenrods in New England.  Tall goldenrod, late goldenrod, rough stemmed goldenrod, grass leaved goldenrod, lance leaf goldenrod, Canada Goldenrod, and swamp goldenrod are some of the more common ones.

  • Wild_Bill

     I wrote this more than a decade ago.  I distinctly remember how much I enjoyed working on it.  So its nice to see that it has, at least some, resonance.

  • Wild_Bill

     Goldenrod is a lot of fun to identify.  Let me know if you find any unusual types in Minnesota.  And yes, the message is always “not so fast” when it comes to understanding nature.  What I thought I knew twenty years ago has changed, and twenty years from now what I think I know now will have changed also.

  • Wild_Bill

     Maybe a glimmer, but not much more.  Here’s my secret.  Even though I am trained in science and I heavily rely on science to understand nature I still rely on intuition when seeking answers.  By listening to my inner self while holding something from the natural world I am much more receptive to the truth.  And it is the truth that gives us the glimmers that help us to understand the balance.

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    I loved the information in this post. It is always interesting to learn why one plant does so well in one area instead of something else. I also like Goldenrod so it was doubly good in my view. I posted some trail camera shots you might like.

    All the best.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Guy, I’ll check those shots out.  Natural systematics can be complicated in some ecosystems and certainly we are just in the infancy of our knowledge about how many work. Interesting stuff, nonetheless.

  • Annie

    I love reading these posts, Bill. They peek my curiosity and encourage me to get out and explore even more of our natural world. I already find myself stopping many times during my walks or garden time, my eye catching some sort of movement, to see what is there. Many times I reflect upon something I have read on your blog and what I’m seeing all comes together in one of those ahaa moments. Thank you for sharing your insight. 

  • Wild_Bill

     The ahaa moments are the best moments.  And I am so pleased that you are able to take information I write about and put it to use in the field.  You’ve made my day!  Thanks for letting me know.

  • Teresaevangeline

    I’m back: Like Annie, and I’m sure many others, I have often seen things with new eyes because of information I’ve read in your posts. Just a short while ago, Buddy and I went for a walk to get the mail and I realized the goldenrod have come into bloom. Now, I see them in a new light, with new understanding and appreciation.  Thank you for that. 

  • Wild_Bill

     Thank you Teresa, it is really nice to know that seeing the natural world through my eyes is helpful to some readers.  That’s one of the main points of Wild Ramblings, along with and knowing this is helpful to me.  If you have goldenrods already in bloom you are quite a bit ahead of us.  But given your longer days and shorter summer this doesn’t surprise me.  

  • naquillity

    i love goldenrod… it brightens a field, for sure. you always share such great info about nature and make one want to explore just a bit closer. hope your explorations take you on a great adventure this weekend. have a great night~

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you.  Goldenrods vary greatly.  There are so many varieities that live in field, forest, and swamps.  This week will prove to be one of adventures.

  • Find an Outlet

      I remember as a kid bringing home a freshly-picked bouquet of goldenrod and unexpectedly ending up on the receiving end of my mother’s consternation. It was a shock to learn that according to her, goldenrod wasn’t nearly as glorious as I believed. This post reminds me of how we perceive what’s beautiful or not by what we’re told, and how after that incident I saw goldenrod as a lesser plant, which couldn’t be further from the truth. And now to find out it’s all a bum rap anyway!
      I get confused about the relationship between a host and the organisms that use them. Do the galls harm the plant the way mistletoe can kill a mesquite or a virus infects a cell? Are the species that use hosts always considered parasites?
      After living in the southwest and co-existing with insects as big as hamsters, I have a different regard for them. Indeed, their world is mysterious and fascinating when we overcome our distaste for them. They have busier, friskier lives than a good deal of humans and I appreciate your nonjudgmental observations!

  • Lynn Day

    Interesting something you wrote in 2001 is still relevant today. Thank you.

  • Wild_Bill

    Goldenrod will always be relevant, as will every other plant and animal.  Certainly, though, ideas change with time and so something written some time ago could have an outdated concept.  Thanks for stopping by!

  • Wild_Bill

     In the case of goldenrod galls they apparently have only minor impacts on the actual plant.  However, you are correct that this is not always the case.  Plants and animals that have eons to develop relationships find a balance.  That’s why it is not a good idea to introduce foreign plants or animals.   This would seem obvious to many but it is being done every day.

    Our perception of many things can be altered by something we learned at an early age.  Goldenrod is one of those plants that doesn’t get the respect it deserves.  Hence the article!

Nature Blog Network