Gray Goldenrod is a native erect perennial growing from 4 to 40 inches high on unbranched gray-green to reddish stems that are covered with dense short grayish-white hair that is usually ascending or appressed to the stem.
Leaves are alternate, gray-green, narrow and lanceolate, up to 4 inches long, roughened with fine ashy-gray hairy surfaces and stalkless bases. Larger leaves may have a few teeth and the lowest leaves may have a short stalk. Upper leaves are smaller. In the axils of the mid-stem and upper stem leaves there will usually be a small cluster of secondary leaves. Smaller leaves also appear within the floral array.
The floral array is a narrow panicle at the top of the stem that tends to arch over. On the panicle are short lateral branches of flower heads; these lateral branches tend to be along one side of the panicle branch.
Flowers: Each small flowerhead is only 1/4 inch across and consists of 5 to 11 yellow ray florets which are pistillate and fertile. These surround 3 to 10 disc florets, which have yellow, tubular corolla tubes with 5 pointed lips which spread open for pollination. These are bisexual and fertile. The five stamen filaments are yellow and appressed around the single style which has an appendage at the tip. Anthers are yellow until the pollen is ripe, then they turn a dark brown. The style is exserted from the corolla throat at flowering. Wrapping the outside of the head are the phyllaries in a series of 3; these are ovate to lanceolate in shape, of unequal length, yellow, but of a paler color. Below the phyllaries are small leafy bracts on the short stalk of the head. All the green parts have fine hair.
Seeds: Fertile flowers develop a cone-shaped dry cypsela, 0.5–2 mm long, with tufts of pappus (whitish hair) for dispersion by the wind. Seeds of Solidago usually require 60 days of cold stratification and light for germination.
Habitat: Gray Goldenrod grows in dry woods, old fields, and prairies in dry sterile sandy soils in full sun to partial sun. Moisture can be dry-mesic to dry. It will also grow well in more fertile soils but tends to be crowded out by other plants. As the alternate common name of Old-field Goldenrod implies, this species is a pioneer species that will grow well in abandoned grounds. With a root system of rhizomes it can colonize in an area of harsh growing conditions.
Names: The genus name, Soldiago, is from the Latin solidare, as the plants of this genus were known to "make whole". (see notes below for an explanation). The species, nemoralis, means belonging to the woods, referring to this species ability to grow in dry woods. The author name for the plant classification - ‘Aiton’ is for William Aiton (1731-1793), Scottish botanist, who succeeded Philip Miller as superintendent of the Chelsea Physic Garden and then became director of Kew Gardens, where he published Hortus Kewensis in 1789, the Garden’s catalogue of plants.
Comparisons: This is one of the shorter goldenrods and may thus fill a specialized landscaping need. It is also one of the last to bloom in our area - the photos here are all from mid-September. With its shorter height and arching single stemmed panicles it can be separated from the other goldenrods. Other Goldenrod photos.
Above: 1st photo - The unbranched main stem produces short side branches of flower heads. 2nd photo - Each flower head has a short stalk and 3 series of yellow phyllaries around the outside, and short green leafy bracts under. All the stem and stalks, and bracts have fine rough hair.
Below: 1st photo - The typical arching panicle of this species. 2nd & 3rd photos - Stem and leaves all have fine whitish-gray hair. Note the secondary leaves in the axils of the main upper stem leaves.
Below: The cone-shaped dry cypsela, 0.5–2 mm long, with tufts of pappus. Photo courtesy Steve Hurst, USDA-NRCS Plants Database.
Below: The outer ray florets number 5 to 11, surrounding 3 to 10 disc florets. Stamen filaments and anthers are yellow until the pollen is ripe, then the anthers turn darker.
Notes: Gray Goldenrod is considered indigenous to the Garden. Eloise Butler noted it in her Garden Log on Sept. 7, 1907. On Sept. 8, 1917 she noted planting two clumps she got within Glenwood Park (which partially surrounded the Garden). She planted more in 1924, '25, '28, and '32. Ken Avery planted it in 1964. In North America it is found throughout, except for states in the U.S. west of the Rocky Mountains and in Canada except for the far north, Labrador and Newfoundland. Within Minnesota it can be found throughout the state with the exceptions being some counties in the south central part. The MN DNR species list does not provide county detail on the two varieties.
Varieties: There are 18 species of Solidago known in the wild in Minnesota. There are two varieties of Gray Goldenrod, both varieties recognized as being native to Minnesota - var. nemoralis and var. decemflora. There are minor differences in the seed and the basal leaves. In var. nemoralis the basal leaves are usually crenate and the pappus bristles do not or barely exceed the ray floret corolla tubes, whereas in var. decemflora basal leaves are not usually crenate and pappus bristles usually exceed the ray floret corolla tubes. The range of the varieties in the U.S. overlaps Minnesota geographically.
Medicinal Lore: The genus Solidago has several species whose leaves and tops were used by natives for sickness of the stomach - usually a teaspoon of leaves to a cupful of boiling water. Hutchins (Ref. #12) mentions several other uses. Here in Minnesota, Frances Densmore (Ref.#5) reported that the Minnesota Chippewa used various species of Goldenrod for treating cramps, fevers, colds, ulcers and boils. Mrs. Grieve (Ref. #7) reports on European use of various species.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"