Historical Notes About Goldenrod

I wrote this article back in 2016, for Natural Herbal Living Magazine but I had to throw it up on the blog today because someone called goldenrod a weed and I felt like sticking up for one of my favorite fall ornamentals. I also wanted to share that you most likely aren’t allergic to goldenrod.  The pollen produced by goldenrod is quite large, heavy and sticky.  It is too heavy to become windblown and relies on insects to spread it.  It’s almost impossible for people to be exposed to the pollen aside from touching the plant. 

Whenever I think of goldenrod, I think of this poem by Clement Wood, that I found when writing my first monograph on the plant many years ago.

Coin of the Year
NOVEMBER, you old alchemist,
Who would have thought
You could turn the high arrogance of golden-rod To still plumes of silver?1

Today it seems odd to think of goldenrod as a plant of “high arrogance,” however thru the early part of the 20th century, our friend was held in much higher esteem.

Countless poets mentioned goldenrod flowers and many European authors attributed goldenrod with magical properties. Folk legends tell that some sorcerers knew how to use it to find hidden springs or treasure, by using the stalk as some sort of divining rod.2 It seemed to be a plant of good fortune, as another old belief that colonists brought across the pond was if you wore a piece of goldenrod, “you will see your love before tomorrow.”3

It is clear that the plant was used by indigenous peoples of  North America, but as I have mentioned before, so much of the literature on the subject of indigenous plant use is questionably researched and taken out of context, that I hesitate to give much of an account of it on my blog.  I leave it to Native people, who have first hand knowledge,  to write about Native uses if they are so inclined.

Liberty Tea
Goldenrod has a special place in American history.  A tea made from the plant became known as a “Liberty Tea” in the wake of the Boston Tea Party.4

The plant was so popular in the US that it was once in the running to be named the national flower of the United States,5 and in more recent years, was declared the state herb of Delaware.6 Goldenrod is also mentioned as the herald of autumn in the Colorado state song.7

Folk Medicine Uses
An interesting bit of folk medicine from New England involved “rheumaty buds”—galls plucked from the stem of goldenrod plants. New Englanders would carry the galls, which housed small white grubs, in their pockets, believing that as long as the grub lived, the buds prevented rheumatism.10 This was a seemingly obscure belief about a plant that was much more widely used for medicine.

According to Dioscorides, the plant that Romans called solidago is actually Sumphoton Allo, considered by modern scholars to be comfrey.Solidago roughly means “to make whole,” so it makes sense that the Solidago species was given this name due its ability to help with wound healing.

Goldenrod was originally called wound-weed in England,11 and been employed to heal wounds of all natures. The Scottish made an ointment of all-heal, goldenrod, and butter, which they applied to fractures.12

Nineteenth century physician William Cook wrote of the plant as a remedy for some types of bleeding, saying, “The leaves of these two plants, and probably most others of the goldenrods, are quite astringent, and have been used in passive menorrhagia,and other forms of bleeding.”13 Ethnobotanist Gabrielle Hatfield confirms that this was a long-standing folk use of the herb.14

Colds and Catarrh
Early 20th century physiomedical physician Thomas Lyle wrote, “it is a sanative germicide, and is valuable in the presence of putrescence…It may be boiled down and made into a confection or troche with sugar, suitable for sore throat of almost any kind, for children or for adults.”

Stomach Complaints
The Irish used the herb somewhat differently to other cultures. In Ireland, it was used extensively for stomach upsets and flatulence.15 This is also mentioned in later literature by Thomas Lyle, who suggested that Solidago canadensis stimulates and tones the alvine (term for stomach and intestines) mucous membranes.16

Nervous Exhaustion
At the beginning of the 20th century, Irish herbalists were suggesting goldenrod as a remedy for neurasthenia,17 or “americanitis,” as it was dubbed in the US.18 This condition presented with various conditions including, “dyspepsia, headaches, paralysis, insomnia, anaesthesia, neuralgia, rheumatic gout, and menstrual irregularities,” and was considered to be due to exhaustion of the central nervous system’s energy reserves.19 Appalachian people brewed “Blue Mountain Tea” from Solidago odora for exhaustion and fatigue.20

Goldenrod as a Kidney Tonic
The most popular Irish-American folk use (at least in my region)  is using root decoctions for “kidney problems” and that seems to be the use that hung around in Europe. The physician Finley Ellingwood, one of the authors of American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy(1915)  wrote about having learned of the plants usefulness in kidney complaints from German homeopathic physician Johann Rademacher,21 who was a colleague of Samuel Hahnemann.

I hope these few historical anecdotes have  inspired a bit more respect for a plant whose importance has been downgraded in the last century or so. There is definitely good cause for goldenrod’s “high arrogance.”

1 Wood, Clement. “Coin of the Year.” Poetry: A magazine of verse, Harriet Monroe, ed. 11(3) (1917): 125–125.
2 Folkard, Richard. “Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics. Embracing the Myths, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-lore of the Plant Kingdom. By Richard Folkard, Jun.” 1884. doi:10.5962/bhl.title.13215.
3 Skeel, Mary H. "Superstitions of Childhood on the Hudson River." The Journal of American Folklore 2, no. 5 (1889): 148. doi:10.2307/533327.
4 Siegel, Nancy. "Cooking Up American Politics." Gastronomica 8, no. 3 (2008): 53-61. doi:10.1525/gfc.2008.8.3.53.
5 Gunthorp, H. "Hay-Fever And A National Flower." Science 49, no. 1258 (1919): 147-48. doi:10.1126/science.49.1258.147.
6 Tucker, Arthur O., Michael J. Maciarello, and Keith Clancy. "Sweet Goldenrod (Solidago Odora, Asteraceae): A Medicine, Tea, and State Herb." Econ Bot Economic Botany 53, no. 3 (1999): 281-84. doi:10.1007/bf02866639.
7 Fynn, A. J. “Colorado State Song.” The Journal of Education 89, no. 10 (2220) (1919): 273–273.
8 Quinn, Vernon. Stories and Legends of Garden Flowers. Madison, WI: F.A. Stokes, 1939. p 10.
9 Friend, Hilderic. Flowers and Flower-Lore. Vol. 2. 2 vols. London: W. Swan Sonneschein, 1884. p. 439.
10 Bergen, Fanny D. “Some Bits of Plant-Lore.” The Journal of American Folklore 5, no. 16 (1892): 19–22.
11 Thiselton-Dyer, T.F. The Folk-Lore of Plants. London, England: Chatto & Windus, Piccadilly, 1889.
12 Beith, Mary. Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands. Birlinn, 2004. p. 221.
13 Cook, Wm. The Physio-Medical Dispensatory: A Treatise on Therapeutics, Materia Medica, and Pharmacy, in Accordance with the Principles of Physiological Medication. Cincinnati, OH: Wm. H. Cook, 1869.
14 Hatfield, Gabrielle. Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
15 Allen, David Elliston, and Gabrielle Hatfield. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2004.
16 Lyle, Thomas J. Physio-Medical Therapeutics, Materia Medica and Pharmacy. Salem, Ohio: J.M. Lyle & bro., 1897.
17 Moloney, Michael Francis. Irish Ethno-Botany and the Evolution of Medicine in Ireland. Dublin, Ireland: M.H. Gill & Son. Ltd., 1919.
18 Daugherty, Greg. “The Brief History of ‘Americanitis.’” Smithsonian. Accessed June 30, 2016. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/brief-history-americanitis-180954739/.
19 Beard, George. “Neurasthenia, or Nervous Exhaustion.” The Bost
20 Mellinger, Marie B. “The Spirit Is Strong in the Root.” Appalachian Journal 4, no. 3/4 (1977): 242–54.
21 Ellingwood, Finley, and John Uri Lloyd. American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy. Evanston, IL: Ellingwoods̕ Therapeutist, 1915.