In September and October, when many plants have hung up their ball gowns, the ubiquitous goldenrod is just making its grand debut. This tall plant with its large grapelike clusters of yellow flowers is hard to miss. Each inflorescence–or flower head–actually contains hundreds of little flowers, on average a thousand per plant. The tiny flowers are heavy with pollen and rely on insects for distribution. The goldenrod pollen is heavy and sticky, making insects, rather than wind, the perfect pollinators.
Because it is among the last flowers to bloom before frost sets in, insects flock to goldenrod like Black Friday shoppers, to build up their reserves for the winter. Butterflies rely on goldenrod for sustenance before beginning their migrations. Bees, bumblebees, wasps and moths can be seen sharing a cluster of goldenrod flowers, so absorbed by their good fortune that they are often oblivious to their surroundings.
With so many insects buzzing drunkenly around the goldenrod, predators find the plant a great watering hole as well. The Goldenrod spider has evolved to blend in perfectly with the flower, and jumps out to attack unsuspecting prey.
Even the stem of the goldenrod is a valuable food source. A small fly called the goldenrod gall fly lays an egg on the stem, which causes the plant to develop a shallot-sized growth around the egg. That growth provides shelter for the insect inside–and also a food source for the bird lucky enough to find and pierce the gall to get at the tasty treat inside.
So get outside before temperatures drop and look for this bright yellow flower. Be sure to take a close look. You never know what you’ll find on or in it!