Golden Rod

While the genus Solidago is undoubtedly out of fashion in the UK there’s a good chance that it will make a reappearance in coming years as part of ‘New Naturalistic’ planting. As an overall plant this genus boasts some pretty solid and reliable members; free flowering, usually self supporting, often with excellent seedheads in the autumn and winter. There are those who criticise Solidago for it’s reliable performance and those who dislike yellow flowers for some strange ideologistic reason. Colour-bigotry is a strange thing, and while I totally understand the importance of using colour appropriately in a garden or planting scheme there is no real sense in being biased against a particular colour in itself. As to those who dislike certain plants because they are easy to grow… well there is no hope for some people!

Solidago as a genus is primarily North American, although there are a few species in South America and a few in Eurasia. To the best of my knowledge most of the cultivars in European cultivation are derived from North America species, although finding reliable information on cultivars, particularly older cultivars, can be challenging.

While I’ve grown Solidago commercially in various jobs over the years the first I grew for myself was Solidago faucibus. This was something of an impulse purchase on my part; I saw a pot of fairly large broadly oval leaves with no flowers and a label that simply gave the name of the plant with no description and that strange voice in my head said “buy it”. I’m almost certain that I bought it from Evolution Plants, a short lived nursery in the UK that disappeared several years ago. To say that information about S. faucibus in cultivation is scarce is an underestimate; the only plant of this species I have ever seen is the one I’m growing!

Knowing nothing about the species and how it would behave I planted it out. From a dense mound of leaves that persist through winter tall stems to 1.5m tall in mid summer… and the plant seems to stay in limbo for several weeks, covered in buds before starting to flower- quite strange! When the flowers do open they are of a warm golden colour but aren’t borne densely, so the effect is quite subtle in the border.

Golden Solidago faucibus among the whites of Sanguisorba and Fagopyrum

This plant isn’t destined to be a huge success in cultivation but is not without charm. It seems prone to being blown around by wind but I rather like the thin spires of gold among the other plants in my garden.

I’ve found S. faucibus to be trouble-free in the garden over the 10 years or so that I’ve had it. Slugs and/or snails might nibble at the foliage but as the leaves remain low to the ground this is never visible. Certainly this plant has shown no signs of seeding or spreading, being happy it seems to remain as a well-behaved clump. In its habitat S. faucibus is found in ordinary to somewhat damp soils along streams and in natural ditches, sometime amongst mixed hardwood trees. It has a disjointed natural range, appearing in parts of Kentucky, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. It was formally recognised under this name in 2003 and may be in European cultivation under a different name.

I’ll confess that while I do like them I don’t intend to have a collection of Solidago; I like them but don’t want just Solidago in my small garden! I am, as I hope we all are, always looking for suggestions of good plants, and with this in mind I saw Solidago ‘Foxbrook Fountain’ on John Grimshaw’s Instagram feed and I was smitten. Sometimes you see a plant and it just speaks to you; there’s something about how a good plant presents itself that just looks right.

Solidago ‘Foxbrook Fountain’ is one of three “Foxbrook” cultivars raised by John Williams. This plant has a strong presence in the border, standing neatly upright to a height of 2m (6ft) and crowned with golden flowers in summer and autumn. Excellent ornamental seedheads follow in autumn and winter, subject to weather leaving them unscathed.

The other “Foxbrook” Solidago I grow is S. ‘Foxbrook Gold’, again raised by John Williams. My plant, still in its infancy, seemed to have a golden flush to the new leaves when I bought it, a flush that disappeared as the foliage aged (thus the foliage immediately under the flowers was golden while the rest of the leaves were green). This trait seems to escape mention in the few places these plants get recognition, making me wonder if my plant is correctly labelled.

There was a time when Solidago was a much more appreciated genus, maybe at a time before it became trendy to dislike certain colours. Of the old cultivars one is still fairly frequently encountered, S. ‘Ledsham’ is still a very good garden plant. Unlike the Foxbrook cultivars above, S. ‘Ledsham’ is quite a short cultivar, only reaching a potential height of around 60cm. It reached prominance when it was given a ‘Highly Commended’ award at RHS Wisley in 1956, somehow missing out on an Award of Merit (A.M.). Maybe the committee’s meeting on the 8th of August that year was a little too early for the plant to be admired in its full glory? Certainly many years have passed since this plant was last trialled- it wasn’t entered for trial in the 2000-2002 trial despite being fairly widely available- and it would be useful to check if what is in cultivation as S. ‘Ledsham’ is still the right thing. The original S. ‘Ledsham’, raised by Mr. H. Walkden, is described as being a compact and bushy plant around 75cm tall, with hortizontally spreading flowering spikes, freely branched, of double sulphur-yellow flowers.

As I say, I have no intention of collecting Solidago specifically, but at the same time I’m not going to ignore a good plant when I see it. Maybe I’ll add more to the garden in time, maybe I will give away the ones I have (unlikely); either way I will still ‘fly the flag’ for these hard working and eminently garden-worthy plants.

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