~ Plant Highlights ~
Sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora) is one of the over 30 species of goldenrods native to Kentucky according to the USDA Plant Database. This species of goldenrod is also native to most of the eastern U.S. (sorry Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Maine – it’s not native in your states) and a few states west of the Mississippi River. It is a medium height species of goldenrod, typically only growing 2-4 feet tall, although it can get as tall as 5 feet.
Other common names for sweet goldenrod include anise-scented goldenrod, fragrant goldenrod, and licorice goldenrod. As all of the common names suggest, there is something special about the scent of this goldenrod – when the leaves are crushed, they smell like licorice. Sweet goldenrod’s narrow leaves and distinctive scent make it relatively easy to identify in the field. (Most goldenrod species are best identified as simply “a goldenrod” or “Soldiago sp.” unless you are a goldenrod expert or you take the flowers into the lab and look at them under a microscope.)
Sweet goldenrod grows naturally in open woods as well as fields and prairies in medium to dry soil. It can also be grown in pollinator gardens and other semi-natural landscaped areas. Unlike most goldenrod species, sweet goldenrod tends to form clumps more than it tends to spread via runners. This clumping behavior makes it better suited to growing in a garden than most goldenrod species. However, it may still be too aggressive for very small, perfectly maintained garden spaces. Sweet goldenrod may not be as aggressive as other goldenrod species, but it’s still a good idea to give it a little room to spread.
Like other goldenrod species, sweet goldenrod blooms in the late summer and fall (typically August and September in Kentucky). Its bright yellow flowers are highly attractive to many different species of pollinators. Goldenrods of all kinds provide an important late-season nectar source for many different species of butterflies, including migrating monarchs. Honey bees and native bees will also gather nectar and pollen from various goldenrod species. There are quite a few species of native bees that are pollen specialists and their brood can only eat goldenrod pollen.
Goldenrods, in general, are of particular interest to beekeepers because much of the fall honey in many eastern states comes from goldenrod nectar. Anecdotal observations seem to suggest that honey bees prefer some species of goldenrods over others; however, little scientific research has been conducted on honey bee preferences between goldenrod species. Honey bees are known to use sweet goldenrod, at least in some parts of the plant’s range.
Sweet goldenrod may also be of additional interest to my readers who enjoy learning about ethnobotany and herbal uses of native wildflowers. The dried leaves and flowers have been used for teas and herbal medicines for hundreds of years. In fact, sweet goldenrod was a component of the tea used by the Colonists after the Boston Tea Party. (New Jersey tea was another major component of that tea.) Essential oils have also been extracted from sweet goldenrod for use as commercial fragrances and flavorings.
It’s hard to imagine a large-scale pollinator planting that doesn’t include goldenrods for late-season blooms. However, most goldenrod species have an aggressive growth-form that makes them less than ideal for smaller pollinator plantings and gardens. Sweet goldenrod’s clumping growth form gives us an option to potentially bring the benefits of goldenrods into our “tamer” pollinator gardens and plantings. It won’t work in every situation – no plant will – but if you’ve always shied away from planting goldenrods because of their aggressive nature, then I suggest taking a look at sweet goldenrod to see if it might have a place in your pollinator gardens.
Shannon Trimboli is a beekeeper, farmer, wildlife biologist, and author. She owns Grassy Roads Farm and Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting. Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting specializes in plants and habitat consulting services for honey bees, native pollinators, and wildlife conservation. In 2018, her first book, Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, was published. Shannon also writes a weekly blog called Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife. The blog features profiles of pollinators and wildlife, tips for attracting pollinators and wildlife, highlights of different plants for pollinators and wildlife, and life on the farm and nursery. You can sign up to have her blog emailed to you.