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December 28, 2014
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community living

Goldenrod ethnobotany; Solidago of the Upper Delaware

TRR photos by Scott Rando

By Nathaniel Whitmore

Goldenrods are among our quintessential native wildflowers, though several of our species are from the prairies further west and not indigenous to the eastern woodlands. We also have European species, which were utilized as medicine in their homelands.

It is known that the Lenni Lenape boiled goldenrod and used the water in sweat lodges. Otherwise, I have not unearthed much about our local tribe’s use. The sweat lodge was used by most, if not all, Native American tribes as a purification and healing ceremony. Hot rocks are brought into a small lodge made of skins, stones, and/or tree bark. Water is poured over the stones to produce steam (in the manner of a sauna). In many cases herbal “tea” is used, such as goldenrod. Often the herbs selected are diaphoretics, which are herbs that help to promote a sweat and can be taken internally for that purpose.

One Ojibwa name for goldenrod means “sun medicine,” another “squirrel tail.” They used it for sore throats, fevers, ulcers, boils and cramps. The dried leaves were decocted as a diaphoretic for fevers. The root was decocted and used internally and externally for cramps. So both in the sweat lodge and as a wash goldenrod might have been used both outside and in—a very thorough application! Compare this “saturation” approach to the herbal pills of today’s common use, and it is clear that our modern version of herbalism is very far removed from that of yesterday’s Native American. Herbalist Matt Wood discusses how the root system indicates goldenrod has nourishing properties according to Ojibwa understanding.

The main genus name for the goldenrods is Solidago, which comes from solidus (meaning “whole”) and refers to its wound-healing properties, or possibly because the name was applied to a main Roman gold coin which the flower color resembles.

The name goldenrod, of course, refers to the standard flower design, which is a rod of yellow flowers. Natives, Europeans and likely others took this yellow color as a sign to use the herb for urinary disorders, a main use of both traditions.

A common modern use is goldenrod for allergies. Except for some rare exceptions, it is a myth that goldenrod causes allergies. Usually, goldenrod is collecting the blame that is owed to ragweed. Colorful flowers are generally insect-pollinated and not terribly allergenic. Air pollinators have green flowers (having no need to attract insects) and send their pollen airborne—and sometimes to our unwelcoming sinuses.

The Blackfoot use supports this modern theory, as they used goldenrod for nasal congestion, sore throat, and throat constriction (and as a magic cure-all). Many will simply use the species that grows close or is easy to get, and most herbalists seem to consider most species to be interchangeable as medicine.

Goldenrod is in the Aster family, along with Echinacea. I have noticed that some species smell very similar to Echinacea, and it seems to have been used in similar ways. The Alabama used it for colds, toothache and skin infections. Cherokee used plant infusion for colds, coughs, fevers, measles, and tuberculosis, which indicates some “antibiotic” properties like Echinacea.

Iroquois used it for hemorrhage, gall bladder congestion and to break a love spell. The Navajo have regarded it as a good luck charm, like the Iroquois. Some used the gall as a charm. Galls are growths caused by insects. When their eggs are laid within the goldenrod tissue, it most often causes the stem to swell into a ball. One will also find the top of the plant kind in a cluster.

Use this simple key to begin identifying the species beyond your yard and other local wild places. Consult wildflower guides for definitions of terms you do not know and for supplemental information.

KEY TO OUR SPECIES OF SOLIDAGO:

A. wand-shaped or axillary clusters

B. mainly axillary clusters

C. stems zigzag – S. flexicaulis zigzag goldenrod

C. stems not zigzag – S. caesia bluestem goldenrod

B. wand-shaped

D. creamy white flowers – S. bicolor silver-rod

D. yellow flowers

E. involucral bracts squarrose – S. squarrosa stout goldenrod

E. involucral bracts not squarrose – S. uliginosa wrinkleleaf goldenrod

A. pyramidal

F. triple nerved

G. stems glabrous

H. leaves long-petioled and persistant – S. juncea early goldenrod

H. leaves shriveled by flowering time – S. gigantea smooth goldenrod

G. stems pubescent at least to midpoint

I. upper leaves serrate – S. canadensis Canada goldenrod

I. upper leaves minutely serrate to entire – S. altissima late goldenrod

F. pinnately veined

J. stems glabrous

K. lowest cauline leaves clasping – S. uliginosa bog goldenrod

K. lowest cauline leaves not clasping

L. stems ridged – S. patula spreading goldenrod

L. stems round

M. basal leaves gradually tapering – S. juncea early goldenrod

M. basal leaves abruptly narrowed – S. arguta forest goldenrod

J. stems pubescent

N. leaves glabrous – S. odora sweet goldenrod

N. leaves pubescent

O. sharply toothed – S. rugosa wrinkleleaf goldenrod

O. entire or obscurely crenate – S. nemoralis gray goldenrod