Every year I welcome goldenrod with mixed emotions

Every year I welcome goldenrod with mixed emotions
Herb Broda

Goldenrod is sometimes wrongly accused of causing runny noses and related allergies. The real culprit is usually ragweed, which frequently grows very near goldenrod.


It was 1914, and Henry Ford was worried. His game-changing, available-only-in-black Model T had begun production in 1908. It was a huge success with millions being produced for consumers eager to experience the freedom of the open road. Ford wasn’t worried about the engine, though; he was nervous about the tires.

The rubber for car tires was being imported from tropical climates. As WWI began to unfold, Ford feared his supply of rubber would be cut off, resulting in beautiful black cars without any tires.

Although Thomas Edison was 16 years older than Ford, the two knew each other well. Previously Ford had been the chief engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. Ford also was close with tire magnate Harvey Firestone, who was very concerned about a possible rubber shortage. The answer seemed simple: find a domestic source of latex.

In 1927 this dynamic, creative trio formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation on Edison’s estate in Fort Myers, Florida. They wanted to find a source of rubber that could be produced cheaply and quickly in the U.S.

This was a huge project. Edison tested more than 17,000 plant samples in his lab. Plants that showed promise were sent for further testing at his lab in West Orange, New Jersey. What emerged as the most promising plant was the goldenrod, much like the one we see everywhere this time of year. But if millions of tires were to be produced from goldenrod, it would take more than the usual roadside variety.

Always the inventor, Edison experimented until he developed a mammoth goldenrod over 12 feet tall that produced significant amounts of latex. This mammoth goldenrod carried the name of its designer, Solidago edisoniana. An appreciative Henry Ford even gave Edison a Model T with tires made from goldenrod latex.

Unfortunately Edison died in 1931 before all of his goldenrod research and development could be brought into commercial production. Ford was still interested in the project, but as WWII approached, his research team discovered rubber could be made cheaper synthetically, so goldenrod returned to the roadside and stayed off the roadway.

Glorious goldenrod

Every year I welcome goldenrod with mixed emotions. During late July and early August, when I’m still loving summer, the plants are starting to dominate the landscape even though they are not yet in bloom. That’s a sober signal to me that summer is winding down. As an educator, the goldenrod also announces for me the start of a new school year. The more yellow blooms, the closer is the start of school.

Goldenrod is sometimes wrongly accused of causing runny noses and related allergies. The real culprit is usually ragweed, which frequently grows very near goldenrod. According to the National Wildlife Federation, ragweed has small wind-borne pollen that easily gets into our nostrils. Goldenrod, however, has larger and heavier pollen that is less likely to cause problems.

As September unfolds, you can’t miss these tall plants with the bright-yellow flowers growing beside the road. Goldenrod is beautiful, and those tall plants with the bright-yellow tops are everywhere: beside interstate highways, along township roads and in vacant city lots. Sometimes entire fields glow with thousands of plants; tall purple ironweed plants frequently grow in the mix, creating a spectacular color palette. Goldenrod is a dazzling introduction to the next season.

Goldenrod is an important late-summer food source. Several species of butterflies and moths feed exclusively on the flowers, and even more feed on goldenrod in addition to other plants. Innumerable beetles, wasps, flies, bees and bumblebees also make regular stops at the yellow flowers. Some are insect predators, hanging around hoping to turn some of the visitors into lunch.

Even after the plant dies back and frost coats the landscape, the seeds are a significant food source for several species of birds and small mammals. Goldenrod galls serve as both a food source and shelter for many types of insects and other tiny organisms.

Oops — mea culpa

Last month I lamented that hardly any sports teams were named after plants. A reader gently informed me I had overlooked our very own Ohio State Buckeyes. Please pardon my plant blindness.

Enjoy September.

Email Herb Broda at 4nature.notebook@gmail.com.

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