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In the garden with Felder: Bring on the sniffles -- but careful what you blame

 

Goldenrod, with its fluffy yellow plumes, is often maligned come fall allergy season.

Goldenrod, with its fluffy yellow plumes, is often maligned come fall allergy season.
Photo by: Felder Rushing/Courtesy photo

 

 

Felder Rushing

 

 

Goldenrod is getting cranked up, and people are starting to sneeze ... but blaming the wrong culprits.  

 

I totally get the allergy woes; what people mistakenly think is my cheeriness is actually the antihistamines kicking in. But lots of folks lay fault on the first thing we see, and unfairly malign beautiful but benign wildflowers.  

 

In general, if a flower is pretty, colorful or fragrant, it is to attract butterflies, bees and other pollinators because its pollen is too heavy to float in the wind; those with really small, lightweight pollen such as oaks, pines, grasses and especially the common generic ragweed have to be spread by wind. And that's what makes it up our noses. 

 

Where goldenrod has fluffy, brilliant yellow flowerheads, ragweed has thin, green spikes with pale yellow pollen.  

 

Goldenrod is actually in the same family as sunflowers and zinnias, and makes excellent, long-stemmed, long-lasting cut flowers. It supports more wildlife than any other perennial, native or otherwise. It's a source of food for over a hundred species of butterflies, moths, bees and other pollinating insects, plus songbirds which feed on their nutritious oily seeds, and colorful crab spiders that eat even tinier insects. Its strong nectar makes a dark, spicy honey. 

 

Oh, and dried goldenrod seeds make an excellent, nutritious flour "extender" that country folk with meager food supplies used to bulk up their pancake and bread batters. 

 

Not many folks eat goldenrod anymore, but it is gaining in popularity here as a fall flower border mainstay. It's long been a mainstay in English perennial borders, and Louis XIV, the Sun King, had it all over his formal plantings at Versailles. Monet's fabulous cutting garden at Giverney includes goldenrod.  

 

In addition to the common tall field goldenrod, sophisticated gardens typically have several other smaller, less invasive cultivars such as the thin, arching Fireworks and non-spreading dwarf kinds with names like Cloth of Gold and Peter Pan.  

 

Errant goldenrod seedlings are pitifully easy to pull with one hand, and I cut the remaining plants to knee high in midsummer to make them bushier with more flowers and less flopping in the fall.  

 

So goldenrod, one of the easiest, showiest native wildflowers to punch up a fall garden, is a mainstay in mine, along with equally showy, garden-quality native blazing star (Liatris), wild blue ageratum, and tall narrowleaf sunflowers and asters. And they're awash in butterflies. 

 

They are all easy to spot in fields and along fencerows, and can be cut back and their lower stems and roots transplanted into regular garden beds for a splendid display this time next year.  

 

Word to the wise: If you use these in a suburban garden, clue in your neighbors. Put up a bit of fence, a wagon wheel, a group of birdhouses, an all-green bottle tree, gazing globe, or some other naturalistic feature to help neighbors get your drift, that you're up to something, not just letting your yard go.  

 

Meanwhile, take a country drive and grab a gander at Mississippi's fabulous fall wildflowers. See if any are worthy of your own garden.  

 

Step over to a clump of goldenrod, and cut two or three stems for an informal flower arrangement. While you're at it, take a really close look at the fluffy plume and single out one of its petite individual flowers, which looks like a yellow zinnia. You'd need tweezers to do the "she loves me, she loves me not" thing, but you'll have a forever appreciation of the whole plant, not just its false allergenic, weedy reputation. 

 

Just watch for the Plain Jane ragweed right beside it. It's a baddie. 

 

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the "Gestalt Gardener" on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]

 

 

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