Don’t Blame the Goldenrod

Glorious goldenrod, the bright star of the autumn landscape, is often falsely accused of causing fall allergies. The more likely culprit is ragweed, which blooms at the same time. Goldenrod pollen is sticky and heavy, not windborne, so it isn’t likely to make you sneeze. Ragweed, on the other hand, is a menace!

Goldenrod varieties begin blooming in early fall and continue until frost

Goldenrod is so important for pollinators that it is often called a “keystone” plant – its absence would cause numerous other species to disappear. Not only is it a rich source of late-season nectar, but there are over 20 species of native bees that can only eat the pollen of goldenrod.  Without goldenrod, whole species of bees would become extinct!

A bumblebee buffet

And goldenrod is a wonderful garden plant, just coming into bloom in late September as most flowering plants start to fade. You can find goldenrod ‘Fireworks’ (Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’) at most local nurseries. It is a well-behaved, clump-forming perennial that truly earns its name: bursts of tiny yellow flowers shoot out in every direction, attracting pollinators of all types. 

Fireworks!

Another great garden plant is ‘Golden Fleece’ (Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’). Unlike most goldenrods that can reach a height 3 feet or more, ‘Golden Fleece’ is compact, staying under 18 inches and spreading slowly to 2 feet wide, making it a great front-of-the border choice. We use it as an edger along the path in our new Pollinator Garden. 

‘Golden fleece’ is a great edge plant

Both varieties, like most other goldenrods, are deer resistant, drought tolerant, and prefer full sun and well-drained soil. Look for ‘Fireworks’ at the Nature Center right at the entrance to the Meadow. You’ll see ‘Golden Fleece’ lining both sides of the path through the Pollinator Garden. Many other varieties of goldenrod pop up naturally in the Meadow and in the woods where you will find them bringing that amazing sunshine color into our fall landscape.

Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ at the Meadow entrance
Blue-stemmed Goldenrod at woods edge
Goldenrod glowing in the Meadow

This blog is authored weekly by Cathy Ludden, local expert and advocate for native plants and Board Member, Greenburgh Nature Center.

What’s in a Name?

One of our favorite fall flowers is Helenium autumnale, commonly called “sneezeweed.”  Helenium is covered with flowers from early September until frost, and it blooms in all of the fall colors – yellow, orange, red, and burgundy – sometimes all at once on the same plant! The flowers attract bees and butterflies, and the plant is a reliable, well-behaved perennial that enjoys full sun and average soil moisture. 

Heleniumn autumnale ‘Mariachi Salsa’

The only part of its name that makes sense is “autumnale,” because it does indeed bloom in autumn. Apparently, the name “Helenium” refers to Helen of Troy, and some romantics say that the blooms arose originally from Helen’s tears. Since the plant is native to North America, and Helen of Troy didn’t even know this continent existed, that legend makes no sense.  Maybe the flowers are as beautiful as the mythical Helen? The bees seem to think so.

Multiple colors on the same plant

And then there is the strange and misleading common name – “sneezeweed.” Helenium is pollinated by insects, not wind, so it is not a source of fall allergies. However, the seeds of Helenium were used by certain Native American tribes as a sort of snuff intended to cause violent sneezing when inhaled. It was thought that clearing the sinuses with strong sneezes was therapeutic. Unless you try that, Helenium should not cause any sneezing.

We planted Helenium ‘Mariachi Salsa’ along the foundation of the Manor House, as well as in the Pollinator Garden.  It only grows to about 2 ½ feet tall, and it forms a tidy mound that looks good at the front-to-middle of the garden. Try it for great fall flower color and to feed late-season pollinators. Although the straight species has mostly yellow flowers, nurseries are showing numerous cultivars in a variety of showy fall colors.

Helenium at the Manor House foundation
Helenium in the pollinator garden

Call it Helenium, or even call it “Helen” if you like, but please don’t call it “sneezeweed.” That’s just mean.

This blog is authored weekly by Cathy Ludden, local expert and advocate for native plants and Board Member, Greenburgh Nature Center.