Hidden In Plain Sight: The Everyday Wild Plant with Extraordinary Health Perks

In late summer or early fall, goldenrod graces meadows and fields with its bright golden blooms. As most other flowers fade away with the season’s turning, goldenrod opens its lovely blossoms, much to the relief of nectar-hungry pollinators. 

Goldenrod is one of the last plants to flower before the fullness of Autumn overtakes the land. Not only does this benefit the pollinators and beneficial insects still hanging around, but it’s also a cheery relief for the fading garden. In this way, goldenrod is a wonderful wildflower to welcome into the tended landscape. 

Furthermore, goldenrod is a useful medicinal plant that was and is utilized by Indigenous People across the United States. Much of what we know comes from their teachings, and Goldenrod’s uses can still be applied today, whether for allergies, congested sinuses, wounds, or more.

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of its medicinal uses, let’s begin by discussing what goldenrod is, how to grow it, its garden benefits, and some common misconceptions many folks have about it. 

What Is Goldenrod

  • Plant Family: Asteraceae 
  • Scientific Name: Solidago spp.

Goldenrod is an herbaceous perennial wildflower native to North America; it grows all across the United States, Canada, and parts of Mexico. It belongs to the Solidago genus, which comprises over 100 species and several cultivars.

Many of these species are more abundant and well-known in the midwest over to the east coast. 

Some of the most common and abundant goldenrod species include S. altissima (tall goldenrod), S. canadensis (Canada goldenrod), S. caesia (blue stem goldenrod), S. nemoralis (grey goldenrod), S. gigantea (giant goldenrod), S. rugosa (wrinkleleaf goldenrod), S. rigida (stiff goldenrod), S. speciosa (showy goldenrod), and S. odora (sweet goldenrod; favored for it’s anise-like tasting leaves). 

The western United States doesn’t have as many goldenrod species, but it does have a few. The most abundant goldenrod species found in the West include S. elongata (West Coast Canada goldenrod), S. lepida (western Canada goldenrod), S. missouriensis (Missouri or Prairie goldenrod), S. multiradiata (Rocky Mountain goldenrod), S. simplex (sticky goldenrod), and S. velutina (threenerve or velvety goldenrod). 

While most goldenrods are found in North America, there is a popular European goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) that is an important folk remedy found across Europe and over into Asia. 

Despite there being several different species of goldenrod, they are considered medicinally interchangeable. This is good news, as some goldenrod species are hard to differentiate from each other, and they readily hybridize. Because of this, identifying the plant down to the species isn’t essential. It is imperative, however, to identify it as a true goldenrod, as we’ll cover some toxic look-alikes below. 

That said, goldenrod species differ in that some are more aromatic and pungent, while others are more astringent and bitter. The best way to learn about goldenrod is to see what species grow in your area by using a local field guide or the BONAP’s North American Plant Atlas

Furthermore, familiarize yourself with the unique scent and taste of the leaves of different goldenrod species in your area to help differentiate them. For those in the West, it will be easier to identify goldenrod down to the species than it is for those in the Midwest over to the east coast. 

How To Identify Goldenrod

picking goldenrod

Because there are so many goldenrod species, it’s difficult to provide specific identifying characteristics, as goldenrod species can differ in leaf shape and size, leaf and stem texture (smooth or rough), habitat, and overall growth pattern. 

In general, goldenrod species have alternate, simple leaves that are long, narrow and pointed. They lack petioles and can vary in size depending on the species. The leaves can be slightly toothed or entire, smooth, rough, or hairy. Crush a leaf, and it should have an aromatic scent; some smell like pine, while others are a bit more pungent. 

The stems are usually rough or slightly hairy, though they can be smooth, round, and erect without branching stems (until they flower for some species).

The flowers are almost always a bright golden color (except for S. bicolor, which has white flowers) and most commonly grow as a raceme or panicle. The flower clusters can form a pyramid-like shape near the top of the plant for some species. They are often bent with the weight of the blooms.

Because goldenrod belongs to the Asteraceae family, the flowers are characteristically comprised of disc and ray florets. 

For identifying goldenrod down to the species (or close to it for those that are very similar), it’s helpful to learn the goldenrod species you have in your area (with a local field guide) and the habitat that goldenrod species prefers. 

Some species, such as Canada or Common goldenrod (S. canadensis), grow in open meadows and fields, often forming large colonies where their golden hue illuminates the land. Curtis or mountain decumbent goldenrod (S. curtisii) is native to the Appalachian mountains and thrives in moist, shady areas.

This specific species also forms its small flower clusters in the axils of the leaves all along the stem. This is quite different from the Canada goldenrod, whose inflorescence grows as a panicle at the end of the stem, forming a large cluster of yellow fluffy blooms. 

The above examples show the variance in habitat and growth structure of goldenrod species. If you live in Michigan or the surrounding area, I found this article helpful in distinguishing select goldenrod species from one another. 

Toxic Look-Alikes

groundsel
groundsel

Goldenrod plants can look superficially similar to many species in the Senecio species, which are commonly known as groundsel, ragwort, life root, or staggerweed (note that some of these plants have been reclassified into different genera than Senecio).

These plants are also in the Asteraceae family and have bright golden flowers composed of disc and ray florets. 

Some of the plants in this genus that resemble goldenrods are deadly toxic. Again, a local field guide or plant identification app is indispensable when identifying these plants, as there are many different species within the Senecio genus. You can also use this guide to see which Senecio plants grow in your state. 

In general, Senecio plants have larger individual flowers than Goldenrod’s tiny blooms. They also bloom earlier in the season than goldenrods and tend to have more branching stems. The individual flowers are more daisy-like, with numerous ray florets. They generally form clusters at the top of the branches and have divided leaves (with some species). 

Another plant with a superficial resemblance to goldenrod is common or tansy ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris; formerly Senecio jacobaea). This plant is quite toxic; however, it’s easy to tell apart as the leaves are finely divided, the main stem grows from a basal rosette, and the flowers form a flat-top cluster and are larger than goldenrod flowers. 

The most important thing is to become aware of the goldenrod species growing in your area as well as the Senecio species. Do your research; look up different species and study images of them closely. Once you’re familiar with the “look” of goldenrod, you’ll see that it is quite different from the groundsel or ragwort plants. 

Does Goldenrod Cause Allergies?

allergies goldenrod

There’s a common misconception that goldenrod pollen causes allergic reactions. However, this isn’t the case, as the actual culprit is ragweed pollen (Ambrosia spp.).  Both plants grow in similar habitats (meadows, open fields, roadsides, ditches) and bloom at the same time. 

The reason many blame goldenrod is because you can visually see its yellow flowers. Ragweed has inconspicuous green flowers that are wind-pollinated; hence, they don’t need to be “showy” to attract pollinators. 

Goldenrod is not wind-pollinated as it needs to be fertilized by visiting insects. In other words, the only way to have an allergic reaction to goldenrod’s pollen is to stick your nose into its flowers (an allergic reaction to goldenrod pollen is rare but not impossible). 

Because ragweed is wind pollinated, its pollen floats on the wind, causing microscopic pollen grains to enter your sinuses, much to the dismay of many people’s immune systems. 

The fascinating thing is that goldenrod is commonly used to alleviate allergy symptoms, such as congested sinuses and inflammation, which we’ll dive into more below. So, the next time you’re overcome with allergies, don’t curse the cheery golden blooms, as they may just be the remedy you need. 

Garden Benefits

pollinators goldenrod

Now that it’s clear you don’t need to pull goldenrod from your garden (if you were worried about it causing allergies), here are some reasons to welcome it and perhaps bring more species in. 

To start, goldenrod is one of the last flowers to bloom, as it blooms from September to early October. In this way, it marks the transition from summer to autumn and gifts the land with beauty as most other plants are fading away. This can be a relief for most ornamental and vegetable gardens, which start to look rather sad around this time of year. 

Because goldenrod is a native plant, it’s an important food source for local insect populations and wildlife. It not only attracts numerous bees and butterflies but also lures in beneficial predatory insects such as ladybugs, praying mantises, assassin bugs, syrphid flies, damsel bugs, and parasitic wasps (Blankespoor, Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine). 

Furthermore, many goldenrod species are selected by the parasitic goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis), whose larvae cause large round galls on goldenrod plants. These flies and their larvae do not critically harm the plant. More importantly, they serve as a winter food source for birds such as the black-capped chickadee and downy woodpecker, who break open the galls and eat the fatty larvae within. 

The fluffy seed heads also serve as a food source for many small birds, including sparrows, finches, dark-eyed juncos, eastern towhees, tufted titmice, and more.

Growth & Care

growing goldenrod

In general, goldenrod is a deer-resistant, drought-tolerant, hardy perennial that is extremely easy to care for. In fact, you don’t need to do much with it as it’s already adapted to the climate and soil conditions. 

Plus, you’ll be sure to find a goldenrod species suited to your climate because of how many different goldenrod species there are. Whether your native garden setting is woodlands, swamps, damp soil with full shade, or sandy, dry soil and full sun, there’s a goldenrod plant suited to your habitat. 

In general, goldenrod plants require full shade to full sun depending on the species, and they have low fertilization requirements. They don’t need much fertilizer, as overfertilizing them can cause excessive foliage growth and reduce flower production. 

Starting Goldenrod From Seed

If you don’t already have goldenrod in your garden and would like to bring it in, you can start it from seed. 

Goldenrod seeds, no matter the species, need at least a sixty-day cold stratification period. You can achieve this by either sowing your seeds directly in the garden in the fall or by placing your seeds in a baggie (mixed with damp sand or a damp paper towel) in the fridge for the allotted time frame. 

After stratifying, sow the seeds in the garden in early to mid-spring. Sow the seeds just beneath the soil surface, no deeper than the seed width. Water and keep evenly moist until germination. 

Choice Cultivars

showy goldenrod
‘showy’ goldenrod

Some local nurseries in your area may also sell goldenrod cultivars that may be a better choice for your landscape than the straight species. These varieties of goldenrod are bred to form tight clumps with showy flowers. Some, such as S. rugosa ‘Fireworks,’ are more resistant to powdery mildew, which goldenrod plants are prone to. 

For a smaller clumping variety, consider S. sphecelata ‘Golden Fleece,’ which produces attractive flowers on arched branches. A much larger cultivar, S. shortii ‘Solar Cascade,’ grows 2-3 feet tall and has large, beautiful flower heads. For the partial shade garden, consider the goldenrod cultivar, S. flexicaulis ‘Variegata.’ This cultivar has more of a spreading habit than a clumping one. 

As far as I know, the cultivars are just as medicinally potent as their wild counterparts. That said, I always prefer the wild, straight species to the cultivated ones if I can access the wild, abundant plant. 

Harvesting Goldenrod

harvesting goldenrod

The leaves and flowers of goldenrod are used medicinally, so you’ll want to cut the whole plant back, leaving a few inches of foliage near its base. That way, it can still photosynthesize and nourish the roots, so it can come back strong next year. 

Harvest goldenrod in late summer to early fall when it’s just beginning to open its flowers. If you wait until it’s in full bloom, the flowers will go to seed as they dry, resulting in fluffy seed heads everywhere!

By harvesting them early on, when they just begin to flower, they’ll retain their beautiful yellow hue. 

Before you harvest, ensure that specific goldenrod species are abundant in your area. Only harvest plants with vibrant, healthy-looking leaves, and don’t harvest any plants affected by powdery mildew or with galls.

Lastly, take only what you need and make sure to leave plenty of plants for all the other creatures who benefit from goldenrod. 

Once you have your harvest, hang it in bundles to dry in a warm, dry, and dark space (you don’t want direct sunlight on your plants). Once the leaves are thoroughly dry and crumble in your hand, strip them and the flowers from their stem and store them in an airtight container (such as a glass mason jar).

Label the jar with the plant name, scientific name (write Solidago spp. If you don’t know the exact species), location of where you harvested it, and the date. 

Alternatively, use your freshly harvested goldenrod to make a fresh alcohol tincture. Strip the leaves and flowers from their stalk, chop them up finely, and place them in a glass jar. Cover the herb with alcohol (65-90%), pouring just enough to barely cover the herbs.

Top with a tight-fitting lid, label as described above (along with the alcohol percentage), and store in a cool, dark place; shaking the mixture every few days.

In about six weeks, you can strain off the alcohol, discard the plant material, and store your tincture in a glass jar in a cool, dark place. 

Medicinal Uses

Parts Used: Leaves, flowers

Medicinal Actions:

  • Diuretic
  • Anticatarrhal
  • Anti-inflammatory 
  • Antimicrobial
  • Astringent
  • Carminative
  • Vulnerary
  • Diaphoretic 

Drying, warming, and tonifying, goldenrod is a beneficial ally for a variety of conditions and has a specific affinity for the urinary, respiratory, and digestive systems.

It also has a rich tradition of use by Native Americans as a wound healer for topical ailments such as cuts, bruises, rashes, burns, and more. 

Urinary System

As a diuretic, goldenrod pulls fluids from the tissues and stimulates the kidneys into greater activity to expel those fluids out through the urinary tract. Through this three-way process (pulling fluids, kidney stimulation, and expelling fluids), goldenrod seems to work more specifically on bringing the kidneys into greater function. 

By strengthening and stimulating kidney function, goldenrod is beneficial for damp, inflamed, and acidic conditions, such as edema, gout, kidney stones, and swollen joints. This function also supports the overaccumulation of toxins and uric acid in the blood and lymphatic fluids.

As the abundance of toxins causes the kidneys to weaken, they can’t properly eliminate toxins and acids; thus, those toxins are re-circulated throughout the body. Signs of this include skin conditions such as acne and eczema, inflammation, and redness in the skin (all of which also point to weak liver function). 

“It has long been recognized that Solidago is a kidney medicine. The Goldenrod problem begins with a lack of endurance, a lack of strength to persevere through difficulty, an inability to process what is necessary to get to the end. […] Goldenrod is well suited to patients with exhausted kidneys which can no longer pull in the blood. They have tired lower backs and tired feet. The motto of the Goldenrod patient is “I can’t make it, where’s the nearest chair.”

Matthew Wood, The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines

Because goldenrod is also anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, is it specific for urinary tract infections (UTIs), along with herbs such as uva-ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and corn silk (Zea mays).

For UTIs, a tincture and herbal tea can be used, but tea is preferred as the herbs can come into direct contact with the inflammation and area of infection. 

Apart from urinary tract infections, goldenrod can be used in combination with other herbs such as yarrow (Achillea millefolium), calendula (calendula officinalis), marshmallow (Althea officinalis), and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) for vaginal yeast infections. For this purpose, a sitz bath in the strong decoction of the mixed herbs is recommended. 

Respiratory System

The same energetic profile of goldenrod (drying, warming, toning) can be applied to respiratory conditions such as congested sinuses caused by allergies, colds, flu, and upper sinus infections.

It can effectively “dry”  the mucosa membranes and relieve inflammation and swelling. 

According to herbalist Juliet Blankespoor, “It [goldenrod] is one of the strongest herbs for drying the sinuses.” She also recommends combining goldenrod with sage (Salvia officinalis) in a strong infusion and using that infusion as a gargle for sore throats, thrush, and laryngitis. 

For all these respiratory conditions, goldenrod not only helps to reduce swelling, inflammation, and congested sinuses but also supports the immune system in fighting the infection directly through its antimicrobial properties. 

If there is an accompanying fever, it will aid the body in the fever process through its diaphoretic property. It won’t suppress the fever; rather, diaphoretics work with the intelligence of the body to support the fever process by opening the pores, releasing heat from the body, and (in goldenrod’s case) warming the body up. 

Digestive System

Goldenrod has an interesting taste profile as it is bitter, pungent, and astringent. This simple analysis of its taste tells us many things. For the digestive system, the bitter and pungent taste shows that this herb is both a carminative and bitter or what is also known as an “aromatic bitter.” 

That means it “feeds the digestive fire” by warming things up, bringing circulation to the digestive system, and stimulating the digestive organs into greater activity. This benefits the digestive system by helping prepare it to digest foods.

In this way, digestion, absorption, nutrient assimilation, and expelling of waste products are improved. Thus goldenrod supports conditions such as indigestion, poorly digested food, cramps, and bloating. 

The astringent taste, which is more of a mouth sensation, shows that goldenrod dries and tonifies the tissues. This not only benefits the digestive system but also all the other body systems goldenrod has an affinity for (if there is an accumulation of fluids/swelling). 

But for the digestive system specifically, it helps to reduce excess mucous and inflammation. It’s also useful when the digestive tissues have become loose and flabby, as they do with cases of diarrhea. In this, goldenrod’s anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and astringent properties are beneficial for diarrhea. 

Note that the bitterness, pungency, and astringency depend on the goldenrod species – some may have these properties in equal measure, while others may lean more towards one of these or the other. Because of this, it’s best to go out and taste the different goldenrod species in your region to see which way they lean (after you’ve 100% confirmed it’s goldenrod). 

More pungent plants are going to be more carminative; more astringent plants will be better for drying and tonifying the tissue (and topical care), while more bitter plants will be more cooling and have more affinity for the digestive system. 

Topical Uses

goldenrod oil

Goldenrod’s astringency, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties make it highly useful as a first-aid plant for cuts, scrapes, burns, rashes, and sores. 

The astringency in goldenrod and other astringent herbs is caused by plant constituents known as tannins. These compounds have the unique ability to knit tissues back together and dry excess moisture. As such, they are highly useful for healing wounds and toning loose, flabby tissues. 

Safety & Contraindications

Because goldenrod is a very drying and warming plant, it can aggravate people with dry constitutions. 

Goldenrod should not be used in pregnancy. Those with allergies to plants in the Asteraceae family should exercise caution with Goldenrod. Although rare, contact dermatitis has been reported when handling and tasting goldenrod. 

If you’re on medication or have any medical conditions, consult a trusted healthcare professional before ingesting any plant medicine, including goldenrod. 

The Wild Medicine in Your Garden or Backyard

One thing I’ve realized in my journey of learning about plant medicine is that the Earth provides us with the remedies we need. Goldenrod is a perfect example of this. It is massively abundant in parts of North America and can be such a useful ally for many different conditions.

Whether goldenrod is already growing in your garden or you like to admire it in the field nearby, I hope you come to cherish and utilize this wonderful wild medicine. 

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As an herbalist, my goal is to connect people with the healing powers of nature. Through my writings and herbal concoctions, I aim to guide others toward a healthier lifestyle using time-honored methods. With over four years of experience studying herbalism and organic gardening, I offer my knowledge to inspire others to explore the natural world, cultivate their own gardens, and rediscover their bond with the earth.