Complex leaf, floral system underlies goldenrods’ glory
The weather in September has been rather unsettled so far. We had a chilly start, followed by a heat wave, followed by a series of violent storms that culminated with another dip of the mercury. When the clouds finally broke, the air was a bit drier, a lot cooler and quite invigorating.
I celebrated with a walk through the meadow behind my house and was rewarded with a beautiful display of color — blues from the asters and yellow from the goldenrods.
I imagine that goldenrods are fairly familiar to everyone, but I’m also fairly certain that the plants themselves are not quite as well-known as the flowers. The amazing thing about goldenrod plants is that there are 34 different species that can be found in the Northeast alone. So any time you find one of those “goldenrod” plants, remember that it isn’t as simple as you might expect.
Leaves hold the key
The average goldenrod plant stands about 3 to 4 feet tall. The leaves, which are actually the key to identifying most species, grow alternately along the stem. In some species, the leaves diminish in size as they approach the top of the plant, but in others they stay the same size. For those of you who don’t understand the idea of “alternate” leaf growth, let me explain.
Imagine the face of a compass and think of the cardinal directions as the position of leaves coming off the stem. The pivot point of the compass needle represents the stem of the plant. The first leaf of a goldenrod plant might grow out of the stem pointing north. Then, as you move toward the top of the plant, you find that the next leaf points to the east, west, and so on.
Another way to visualize the plant is to imagine a spiral staircase with steps (the petals) but no railing. In contrast, when leaves grow in pairs along the stem, with one pointing opposite the other, the leaves are referred to as being . . . anyone . . . oh come on this is easy . . . correct! . . . the leaves are referred to as being “opposite.”
Anyway, goldenrod plants have alternate leaves, and the accurate identification of any particular species hinges largely on the shape of the leaves. As an example, let me list the names of a few species: elm-leaved, sharp-leaved, rough-leaved, lance-leaved, slender-leaved, large-leaved. Eventually the people who named the various goldenrods had to focus on other characteristics because they ran out of ways to describe the leaves.
The flowers of goldenrods are all basically the same. Yes, the wise guys in the audience have already noted that they are golden in color (oh brother!), but have you ever really looked at an individual goldenrod flower? If you have, you will note that the flowers themselves are rather small.
Looking very much like dandelions that have only opened halfway, goldenrod flowers are usually less than an inch in length. They have many petals (or “rays”) and when they go to seed they also resemble dandelions in the sense that they produce many little seeds attached to downy bits of fluff that help them float in the breeze.
The arrangement of the flowers can also vary. Sometimes they grow in curved, one-sided spikes at the tops of the plants. Other times they grow in tight, flat-topped clusters, and occasionally they grow in little bunches along the stem. The one thing that remains constant is the color — gold.
So the next time you soak in the beauty of an autumn field filled with goldenrods, just remember that there is an extra level of complexity that makes their beauty all the more wondrous.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.