By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
“There is gold in them thar hills,” so was the call of the ‘49’ers who were beckoned to search for the elusive, but valuable, yellow metal. This enticement has lured hundreds of thousands to remote and usually hostile locations the world over in pursuit of phantom wealth.
With the possible exception of the occasional pirate treasure hunters, Wakulla County has been spared the pathological hunt for subterranean riches based on the random discovery of gold.
However, the area has ample gold for everyone just above the surface. These prospects have many allergy sufferers ready to spend gold to comfortably survive the seasonal experience.
Goldenrod, the common early autumn wildflower, is frequently blamed for the onset of hay-fever symptoms. Sneezing, itchy and watering eyes, and the necessity to purchase tissue and anti-histamines is frequently blamed on this wildflower.
The real culprit is ragweed, another Wakulla County native plant, but with pollen producing blooms which are rarely noticed. Unfortunately, at least for the goldenrod, they both bloom at the same time and goldenrods’ flowers are much easier to identify and blame.
For the record, Goldenrod pollen is too heavy and sticky to be blown far from the flowers, unlike ragweed which is typically wind pollinated. Rarely there are people who have an allergic reaction to goldenrod, but they must have very close contact with the blooms before symptoms begin.
Goldenrods are prolific producers of nectar and pollen which supports a variety of insects, including European honeybees. There are over 100 members to this plant’s genus, which is in the aster family, in the northern hemisphere and South America.
This wildflower took on strategic value during World War I as a possible feed stock to produce natural rubber. The conflict restricted access to the rubber plantations in Southeast Asia which placed a burden on the burgeoning tire industry.
Thomas Edison was one of the key scientists who developed a process to extract usable latex from readily available materials in the west hemisphere. Edison used the common goldenrod to produce rubber and examples may still be seen at his winter home in Fort Myers, Florida.
Edison’s horticultural skills helped develop a 12 foot tall plant with the potential to produce 12 percent rubber by volume of plant material. Only the goldenrod leaves contained the rubber producing compound.
The rise of the Japanese Empire prior to World War ll hastened the development of synthetic rubber which became commercially practical in 1940. After the conflict Goldenrod ceased to be a cultivated crop and returned to its status as a brilliant harbinger of autumn to some, and a weed to others.
Goldenrod currently serves as a host for a variety of native caterpillars which later become butterflies and moths. 2016’s rainfall has insured the growth and development of goldenrod plants in the pastures, fence-rows and other untended sites county wide.
Several cultivars of goldenrod have progressed beyond the classification of weed to become named shrubs with identifiable features. Honeybees depend on the nectar and pollen to sustain their hives during the cooler months, and make their own liquid gold.
For most though, the yellow blooms share the wealth of native autumn beauty with everyone.