Story and photos by Tom Hodgson
The song “Fields of Gold” is about two lovers walking through fields of barley. Today, the “gold in them there fields” is more likely to be goldenrod.
There are 28 species of goldenrod in Michigan. Twenty are found in Washtenaw County, and most are in bloom right now. They are not just associated with fields. Some are at home along the dunes of the Great Lakes, some in bogs and swamps, and others in shaded woodlands. Most, but not all have dense clusters of bright yellow flowers.
They are also prolific nectar producers; important to honeybees, migrating monarch butterflies and a host of other insects. During my beekeeper years, I always knew when my bees were curing goldenrod honey from the pungent odor emanating from each hive. I thought it smelled like hot caramel candy, but my wife said it smelled more like dirty sweat socks.
The honey yielded from goldenrod was darker and of stronger flavor than clover honey.
Goldenrod does not cause “hay fever” or seasonal allergies as its pollen is heavy and sticky and cannot become airborne. The real culprit is ragweed, which blooms at the same time, but has green flowers that are easily overlooked.
Goldenrod remains standing long after the flowers have gone to seed, and the leaves have shriveled to brown. It is then when the work of several kinds of gall forming insects is exposed. The goldenrod gall fly lays its eggs in the stem just below the developing buds. The larva hatches in about a week and begins feeding on the tissues in the center of the stem.
The larva’s chewing and growth hormones released in its saliva stimulate the plant to create a spherical growth called a gall. Upon reaching full size, the larva chews a tunnel almost to the outside and then returns to the center chamber. During the winter months, it transforms into the pupa stage. In spring, as the new shoots of goldenrod are growing, the adult fly emerges through the “escape tunnel” to start the cycle again.
These galls are very visible in winter and can serve a useful purpose. The larva inside make good ice fishing bait. So, if we have enough cold weather to produce safe ice this winter, you know where to go to get bait for ice fishing. They are also an important winter food source for black-capped chickadees and downy woodpeckers, so some of the galls you find may have already been opened.
There is also a gall forming moth whose larvae form football-shaped galls on goldenrod. Don’t think they are good for ice fishing bait, however.
I’ve included a photo array of some of the more common goldenrod species in our area and a look inside a goldenrod gall. Keying goldenrod down to species can be tricky. For those who really want to take goldenrod identification challenge, I’ve also included a PDF at the end of this article that may help you.
Goldenrods handout-1 use this file