Documents: Garden Design:

Goldenrod & Hybridizing Plants

Do NOT ignore goldenrod for your perennial garden; and ever thought of hybridizing plants as a new aspect of your gardening activity?
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

August 31, 2014

Above, here’s a real ragweed plant a homeowner was growing thinking it was a “nice perennial”; followed by a wild but real nice goldenrod. Author photos. Below, two shots of Ilex meserveae ‘Blue Princess.



The first goldenrod (Solidago spp.) flowers have appeared in my garden. I'm reminded that many gardeners are likely still not aware that this plant, often accused of being the cause of hay fever, is now not only an accepted garden plant rather than just a roadside weed, but in fact a most desirable garden plant for late summer and autumn colour.

For hay fever sufferers, let's note at the outset, that goldenrod is not a cause of your problem! Most likely it is ragweed, which is also in bud right now, and is generally in flower and causing problems for hay fever sufferers at about the same time as the much more visible goldenrod.

Even a decade ago, if you were to plant goldenrod in a Canadian garden, you'd have been accused of planting a weed most often seen in wild/natural areas or along roadsides. Only in England, and other similar ‘gardening countries’, would you see goldenrod growing in a garden. But in the late 80s and the 90s, with the tremendous increase in popularity of herbaceous perennials, goldenrod has become the darling of many new gardeners. It's been discovered by the yuppies!

This is one plant, however, that I don't recommend you recruit from the wild for your garden, and I also suggest strongly that you cut the flower heads off when the nice yellow flowers have finished. Goldenrod will spread as bad as the most prolific of weeds or other perennials. So, to save yourself some effort in removing hundreds of young seedlings (that will not necessarily grow into plants like the ones from which the seed came), remove the flower heads once the colour has gone.

As to cultivars, there are now ever so many, but two I can recommend that I grow in my garden come from the famous Alan Bloom, of the Blooms of Bressingham nursery in England. The first is one of "standard" height--80-90 cm (30-36")--in other words about the size of the ever-so-common variety seen growing wild (as the photo here shows). It is Solidago 'Lemore' and it has large flower panicles of a bright primrose-yellow colour starting usually in mid-August and lasting well into October. This variety is also excellent for cutting to use in flower arrangements.

The second one I grow is Solidago brachystachys or dwarf goldenrod. This one is definitely a dwarf, growing to a height of only 15-20 cm (6-8"). It begins blooming in late July, and usually finishes in August. Its flowers are in looser sprays and of the typical gold colour. It's useful at the front of beds and borders and even in rock gardens in front of larger dark-coloured rocks.

All goldenrod varieties, even the wild ones, will tolerate partial shade as well as full sun, but do not do well where shade predominates. They are not demanding as to soil but prefer not to have their roots sitting in water in spring.

As far as height goes, right in between the 20 cm dwarf, and the 90 cm 'Lemore' is a hybrid plant known as solidaster (Solidaster luteus). This is an interesting cross between two well-known autumn-bearing plants—the foregoing goldenrod and the perhaps less-well-known Aster. Its height averages at 30 cm (12") and it blooms from July through to October. The flowers are star-shaped and vary in colour from yellow to pale cream. This one too is excellent for cutting and use in arrangements in addition to its use in the garden to brighten the perennial bed or border in late summer.

Unlike the goldenrods, and even though solidaster is not very tall, it often looks better if the large sprays of flowers are supported by Y-shaped tree branches so the latter are hidden by the floral sprays. Like the goldenrods, this plant likes full sun, but does almost as well in partial shade.

* * *

If you are one who has recently become enthralled with gardening as a hobby, and are now thinking of how you can expand your activity, this winter could be the time for you to do some research and planning.

If I were to suggest that should you be looking for a way to get more involved in gardening, you should consider hybridizing of plants, you'd likely say that it would be far too deep and difficult for an amateur like you.

Not so!

Consider the case in the 1970s of Catharine Meserve, living in Pennsylvania. Catharine's husband passed away. Both she and her husband had been ardent gardeners, but neither had ever gotten involved in anything more complex than starting certain "difficult" plants from seed, or propagating shrubs from cuttings. Now she was all on her own. She thought she'd like to get more involved in gardening, but couldn't do anything heavy or (so she thought) technical. A friend suggested she get into hybridizing plants. She eschewed the idea saying it would be far too technical for her, and that she had no training whatsoever.

The friend did not give up, until eventually Catharine asked that if plant hybridizing was such a good idea, how would one start--with what plants? The friend suggested choosing a genus of plants that had not been worked on extensively. When pushed farther, he suggested hollies. "Basically the English holly is not hardy much north of Philadelphia, so there could be a good market for plants which produce abundant red berries in colder climates."

Catharine decided to go for it!

That was 35 years ago or more, and now today, you can check virtually any nursery or garden centre, or look in any nursery catalogue and find the Blue Princess and China Girl hollies. If you look at the tags, or listing, you'll see the botanical names of these are Ilex meserveae 'Blue Princess' and Ilex meserveae 'China Girl'. Yes, they're her introductions, bearing her name, and they are grown extensively in various parts of Canada. [By the way, if you are planting these hollies, remember you must have at least one male plant ('Blue Prince' or 'China Boy' with each four/five female plants, if the females are to bear fruit.)

Now you may think, as Catharine did, that hybridizing plants is a difficult procedure that calls for an extensive knowledge of plants and the ability to carry out hard-to-understand techniques. But, it's all relatively simple. The actual "how-to" of plant breeding can be learned in little more than a few minutes.

The "art" of selecting the right kind of parents and evaluating the hybrids produced are the difficult tasks which will be developed as the work proceeds and the results are carefully studied.

When planning your hybridizing work, you will need to remember that the plants must be closely related botanically. It will be useless to try to cross a lily with a rose, or a geranium with a dahlia (although some unusual crosses do take place occasionally--witness the broccilflower, a cross between broccoli and cauliflower). It's this planning for what is to be hybridized that I suggest could be your winter gardening project, in order to be ready for next spring.

The first thing to do is to familiarize yourself with the main parts of a flower. A "perfect" flower has four parts: the anthers (atop stamens) which produce the pollen; and the stigma, style and ovary. The stigma's shape varies with each type of flower, but is usually at about the same height as the anthers, and often is sticky. The style is the stalk that connects the stigma with the ovary at its base. The ovary is the base that contains the undeveloped seeds (ovules).

Many common flowers, such as dahlias, chrysanthemums and zinnias are really clusters of perfect or imperfect flowers and the parts I've described are so small they are difficult to work on (the anthers must be removed before they produce pollen if hybridization work is to be done). With many fully double flowers such as double petunias, the flowers have been created by changing stamens into petals, so little pollen is produced.

There is much information to be found in books at the libraries—now is the time to search it out. And, if you still think it will be hard for you to start in on the plant breeding hobby, bear in mind that a large percentage of ornamental plant varieties introduced in recent years have come from the efforts of so-called 'amateurs.' Some of the best roses, gladiolii, irises, daylilies, hollies, and African violets are being introduced by hobbyists with less than ten years' experience.

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