Goldenrod

Goldenrod in full bloom attracts a wide variety of pollinators, including this Monarch buttrefly, sipping its nectar to fuel the butterfly's migratory flight to Mexico.

At the Schuylkill Center’s Port Royal Avenue corner, across the street from the Reservoir Preserve, you can see a small field in full bloom, tall, bright yellow flowers shouting their colors to passing pollinators like bumblebees and flies. Dismissed as weeds by too many of us, it’s one of my very favorite signs of the fall season.

Goldenrod.

It’s a great plant – actually, a necessary plant –  a native denizen of not only meadows, but often waste places and overgrown weed lots.

Wait, goldenrod is necessary? Absolutely. For the insects and birds that inhabit our area, it’s their Last Chance Cafe.

Often growing alongside its cousin the aster, goldenrods bring up the tail end of nature’s wildflower parade, a parade that began way back in late February when a few brave pioneers like skunk cabbage and Pennsylvania bittercrest tentatively open their first blossoms in the last days of winter. The parade continues into the spring when trillium and trout lily glow on forest floors in April and May, extends into high summer, when many species of wildflowers hold court in sunny meadows, and ends with goldenrods and asters, the end of the parade. They are only starting to bloom now, and will blossom all the way to Halloween –  and beyond. But that’s it. The flower season ends with goldenrods.

For thousands of insect species like bees, wasps, flies, aphids and more – and for the predators that feed upon them, like praying mantises and spiders—goldenrod is the last chance, the last hurrah, the last pollen and nectar before winter sets in. Goldenrod is a cornucopia of food at a critical time of year, when little else is blooming and the sun is setting on another year. For honeybees, these flowers provide crucial food to allow the hive to make it through the winter. For Monarch butterflies, goldenrod is a key way station on the migration south to Mexico.

And we don’t give goldenrod the credit it is due because of horrific science and mistaken identity. Goldenrod stars in too many hayfever commercials this time of year, someone standing in a field of goldenrod waving the white flag of surrender. Wrong. Goldenrod has big sticky grains of pollen designed to be grabbed by flying insects—its pollen grains are way too heavy to be blown around in the wind. If you are sneezing in September, it has nothing to do with goldenrod, and everything to do with ragweed, a smaller wind-pollinated weed that often grows in goldenrod’s shadow. Its pollen grains are microscopic, mote-sized; one gust of wind and its grains go wafting for miles and miles, filling the air in search of other ragweed plants to land upon. But they land upon your nose instead, and ACHOO!

Don’t blame goldenrod for that. And feel free to stick your nose deep into goldenrod blossoms—nothing will happen.

Goldenrod also belongs to a large family of flowers blooming now, the composites. Asters daisies, sunflowers, and black-eyed Susans all belong to this big clan. Here’s the great part: composites tightly bunch many small flowers together in bundles. As the temperature cools, making it harder for cold-blooded bumblebees and butterflies to fly, they perform a life-saving service for their pollinators. Grouping the flowers closely together allows the bumblebees to gather nectar – and pollinate the flower – more effectively: they don’t have far to fly to the next flower. Flowers and bees have worked out a great deal.

For me, nature guy that I am, goldenrod is a signal, a sign post, that the natural year is winding down, the parade is ending, the clock is ticking. Winter is coming, but nature gives us one last burst of unbeatable color before the gloomy season sets in. Trees are starting to turn color above us, but wildflowers are in bloom all around us.

Go find a goldenrod field, and take a walk. Come to our Port Royal corner; the Morris Arboretum has some magnificent stands. On a sunny day, you’ll find uncountable numbers of insects all around you – and birds coming to pick off those insects. Life in a goldenrod field is one of September’s treats: don’t miss this gift from nature.

And for the insects, it’s their last hurrah, their Last Chance Cafe. Winter’s coming.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org. Find the Center’s website and events calendar at www.schuylkillcenter.org.

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