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Monday, September 1, 2014

Plant of the Month (September) : California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)
 in Mother Nature's Backyard

By September, the garden is awash with tan, pale gold and rust-orange as grasses dry, buckwheats go to seed and many plants enjoy their fall dormant season.  In this symphony of browns, members of the sunflower family add a note of pure golden yellow.  One of our personal favorites is the California goldenrod, Solidago velutina ssp. californica.

California goldenrod is among several goldenrods native to western Los Angeles county.  Solidago confinis  (Solidago spectabilis var. confinis), the Southern goldenrod, once flourished from the coast to the San Gabriel and Verdugo Mountains.  The Western flat-topped goldenrod (Euthamia occidentalis) covered seasonally moist areas throughout California, including at the Dominguez Slough (currently the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve). 

The California goldenrod itself is still widespread throughout California.  Locally it can be found in the Santa Monica, San Gabriel and Santa Susana Mountains, in Griffith Park and on Santa Catalina Island.   It grows in a number of California plant communities including coastal sage scrub, chaparral, oak woodlands and riparian forests/woodlands at elevations less than about 8000 ft.    Generally, the areas are at least seasonally moist, although they may be quite dry in summer.

For many years California goldenrod was known as Solidago californica.  In fact, most of us still think of it by that name.  The Goldenrods, like other native plant species, have recently been re-evaluated by genetic taxonomists.   Similarities at the DNA level suggest that many local variants, including the Arizona, Nevada and California goldenrods, belong together in the species Solidago velutina.   So we’ll just have to get used to a new name for an old favorite.  

While we’re on the topic of names, the name Solidago is derived from the Latin ‘solido’ – to heal or make whole – referring to the medicinal qualities of this genus.  In fact, California goldenrod is useful in several ways, including as a medicinal.  We hope its many properties will make you want to include it in your garden.

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)
 in Garden of Dreams, CSU Dominguez Hills, Carson CA

California goldenrod is a spreading perennial that dies back after blooming (late fall/winter) and re-grows again in spring.  A mature plant produces many upright stems, 2-4 ft tall and crowned with clusters of flowers.  In general, plants that receive more light and water – and those in clay soils -  tend to grow taller and more robust.    

California goldenrod leaves are alternate and become smaller and more elliptical the further one moves up the stem.  The lower leaves are oblong, often toothed and clustered at the base of stems.  The foliage varies from a medium green to gray-green; some plants have leaves that are densely fuzzy.   The stems often have a tinge of red or purple.

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica) against a fall sky

California goldenrod blooms in fall, from late August through October in our area. The name ‘goldenrod’ well describes the arrangement of the flowers.   The small flowers are arranged in a wand-like arrangement at the ends of the stems, creating a wall of golden yellow in a good year (above).   On closer observation, the flowers are actually small sunflower heads, complete with flat ray flowers and yellow central disc flowers.  There are literally hundreds of small flower heads on each flowering stalk.

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)  - flowers
California goldenrod with Fig-eater Beetle and European Honey Bee

If you look closely at the picture above, you’ll note several common insect visitors.  The large green Figeater beetle is likely eating the flowers or pollen.  For more on this interesting local beetle see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/08/green-fig-beetle-figeater-beetle-green.html       The European Honey Bee is among the many types of bees attracted to California goldenrod.   In fact, the goldenrods are excellent pollinator habitat plants.   They bloom in fall, when food can be scarce.  Their abundant flowers, with their tasty nectar and pollen, provide an important source of food for adult pollinators and their offspring.

California goldenrod can be a great educational resource for children and adults.  Pull up a chair on a sunny day and you’ll likely see an amazing array of insects.   You’ll first observe the fall flying butterflies like Skippers and Blues – perhaps even a hummingbird or two.  But sit quietly and notice all the tiny insects, including numerous species of native bees, flower flies, beetles and other insects.  You may even find a spider waiting patiently for insect prey.  In fall, the California goldenrod is its own little ecosystem, teeming with life.
Phidippus californicus – Jumping spider on California goldenrod

In late fall, California goldenrod produces copious fluffy seeds that spread by wind.  The seeds are eaten by finches and other seed-eating birds, so we leave them on the plants awhile.  When it’s time to tidy up in late fall or early winter, cut your goldenrods back to just a few inches.  They will sprout back revived and healthy in the spring.

California goldenrod - ready for pruning back in late fall

California goldenrod is fairly easy to grow.  It likes full sun (and flowers best under these conditions) but tolerates light shade and even works as a groundcover under tall trees.   It does fine in most local soils and is particularly well adapted to clay soils.  While quite drought tolerant, it stays green and blooms longer if given occasional summer water.  We grow California goldenrod around our bubbler fountain, where it gets an occasional splash.  We’ve watered it three times since May in our clay soils.   The lower leaves are beginning to turn brown in late August - but this has been a very dry year indeed.

California goldenrod is a spreader.  The goldenrod ‘patch’ will increase in size each year, as the plant spreads via underground stems (rhizomes).  In our experience,  plants given only occasional summer water spread rather slowly; they are easily contained by removing unwanted stems in spring/summer.  That being said, this plant is an opportunist; like many local riparian plants it will take advantage of available water and grow vigorously with regular irrigation.  If worried by its propensity to spread, grow California goldenrod in a contained area: a planter, small contained area or even a large container.

Goldenrods are used too infrequently in local gardens, perhaps because they are sometimes viewed as weeds.  They have an undeserved reputation as allergens; in fact, the culprit is usually ragweed, a species that blooms concurrently with the goldenrods.   At any rate, goldenrods are unequalled in their ability to brighten up a fall garden.  Given their size, they are best used contained or mid-bed in a mixed planting with Yarrow, Erigerons, Asters, milkweeds, native grasses and shrubs. 

California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica) at base
 of solar fountain - Mother nature's Backyard

Goldenrods are a must for habitat gardens.  They are among the few fall-blooming native perennials, making them essential in gardens too small for the larger shrub Sunflowers.   In addition, California goldenrod is a very useful plant.  Very young leaves & shoots can be used as cooked greens in spring.  Leaves can be dried and used as a soothing tea. 

Goldenrods have been used medicinally where ever they grow.  Native Californians use powdered, dried leaves as a disinfecting powder for skin sores, wounds, burns and rashes.  A decoction (tea) made from leaves was traditionally used for feminine hygiene, as a wash for skin sores and to prevent hair loss.  

Yarn dyed with California goldenrod – Solidago velutina ssp. californica (Solidago californica)

Crafters also find good use for goldenrods.  The flowering stems make good dried (pressed) flowers that retain their color for years.   Flowering stems and leaves can be used to make lovely soft yellow dyes that can be used to color wool, silk or cotton yarn or cloth. 

In summary, California goldenrod is a lovely plant that attracts many insect visitors in fall.  It has many useful properties and is a joy to behold in the fall garden.  We hope you’ll consider this plant when you visit the fall native plant sales!

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html




We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


1 comment:

  1. Love this plant. I think mine are beginning to spread after years of being solitary plants. Hurray! I'd love to see a whole swath of it all over my garden.