Two Thousand Ways Not to Make a Tire

01 Sep


Solidago species



Scrambling to hop on a plane and zoom up north to son Martin’s glorious wedding to wonderful bride Phoebe, I’m tossing up the blog early this week.   The matrimonial son is a tire engineer…a blog in honor of the occasion. (Phoebe has a cooler job–she’s an engineer who works on explosives.)

While the rest of the nation catches a nostalgic scent of end of summer Labor Day,  in Palm Beach County we’re catching newsy stuff about tropical storms.   But there are  a few subtle whiffs of my northern-bred seasonal instincts. Cicadas say goodbye-summer.  So do the Goldenrods,   making the meadows glow.   And, no they do not cause hay fever.  Naming them, Linnaeus felt just the opposite, the genus Solidago translates loosely as “making whole.”  Not “making sneeze.”

Solidago fistulosa 7 - Copy

Golden glow, by John Bradford

Goldenrods are a complex group with border disputes, about 100 species around the world, mostly in North America. About 20 in Florida.  An abundant and attractive local standout is Pinebarren Goldenrod, Solidago fistulosa.

Everybody likes Goldenrods.   Remember that “goldenrod” page in forms in triplicate?  Gardeners like them to the point of commercial cultivars and articles in “Fine Gardening Magazine.”

Gall Flies enjoy the plants in their own way,  inducing  big spherical galls in the stem.  One  fly is so solidag-o-centric it is named  Eurosta solidaginis.    It is always fun when biological relationships chain to three or more species*:   Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers help themselves to the fly larvae within.

Solidago fistulosa 5 - Copy



Birds are not the only threats to the fly babies.  Parasitic wasps inject eggs into the gall, which upon hatching devour the maggot and sometimes top off the protein with a vegetable…the gall tissue.  One wasp hormonally forces the fly larva to mature matched to the wasp’s seasonal schedule.

Now this where it gets truly interesting—as the biologists noted below have determined— these comings, goings, and microaggressions influence the girths of the galls.   First of all, the plant makes a difference, some clones tending to form  larger galls than others.  (Clones can spread by rhizomes into extensive stands.)

But that is just the trailer for the feature attraction.  Size matters in galls.   If in a locality the fly’s only pests are parasitoid wasps, the bigger the gall the more wasp protection the larva experiences.  On the other hand,  if the larva-eating birds are on the scene, the avian predators seem especially drawn to larger galls, being more conspicuous and/or offering larger larvae.   In that case bigger is not necessarily better with the adaptive consequence smaller galls than without angry birds.

Without falling into the silly trap of “plant intelligence,” the complex and dynamic realm of things plants do has blossomed to remarkable in recent years, including the “plant immune system” (Systemic Acquired Resistance).    Goldenrods reportedly  “detect” pheromones from the male gall flies and then emit defensive compounds to repel the female flies.

Solidago (4) edison - Copy

Edison, colleague, and Solidagoedisoniana.”   I took this picture of an interpretive sign at Edison’s Florida house.

Yep, everybody enjoys Goldenrods, and maybe the most fascinating “like” came from Thomas Edison.   Visiting his home in Ft. Myers, visitors learn about Edison’s quest for rubber crops.  After all, his Florida next door neighbor was Henry Ford who had some interest in tires.  Edison tested as many latex-drippy plants as he tested materials for the light bulb,  thousands they say, including a Ficus still on the property, and his primary focus zoomed in on rubber from Goldenrod.   Edison’s experiments  culminated in a breeding program for what was then named Solidago edisoniana (actually S. latissimifolia).

Edison manufactured a few Goldenrod proto-tires and showed them off on a Model-T, but they never panned out commercially, as Brazilian Rubber Trees and synthetic rubber bounced up as better options.  Glad that lightbulb finally glimmered its golden glow.


*Most of today’s gall-related info comes from Dr. Warren Abrahamson at Bucknell University who with collaborators has studied these relationships in depth.

This link concerning freeze tolerance in a Solidago gall fly may interest some.   Cryogenics in the maggot realm.

This link talks about Edison’s rubber program.


Posted by on September 1, 2016 in Goldenrod, Uncategorized


9 responses to “Two Thousand Ways Not to Make a Tire

  1. Martin

    September 1, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    Wow Professor, that was great! Cool picture of Edison, and just crazy interesting – the more we see, the more questions arise. Thanks for this work!

    • George Rogers

      September 5, 2016 at 3:44 pm

      Thanks Martin…what is weird for me is I can’e make a goldenrod bleed latex…

  2. Chris Lockhart

    September 1, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    Hi George,

    Loved the article on goldenrods and the eventual connection between them, Edison, tires and your family. 🙂

    Have a great time at the wedding!


    • George Rogers

      September 5, 2016 at 3:44 pm

      Thanks so much Chris!

  3. theshrubqueen

    September 2, 2016 at 1:09 am

    Goldenrod, engineers, galls and a wedding. An amazing post. Have fun at the wedding. I will be looking for some ‘Fireworks’ Solidago.

    • George Rogers

      September 5, 2016 at 3:46 pm

      Some weddings are just galling!

      • theshrubqueen

        September 5, 2016 at 3:54 pm

        George did you see the volcano pics?

  4. Felicity Rask

    September 2, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    I am very fond of golden rod so happily planted 10 plugs around the pond behind our Florid house. Imagine my shock when returning for the winter it appeared to have grown 12 ft high! Out came the clippers and I quickly trimmed it back to a more acceptable size. Hope you have a beautiful day for the wedding, a happy family time and Hermine will not arrive as an uninvited guest! Felicity Rask >

    • George Rogers

      September 5, 2016 at 3:50 pm

      Those goldensrods can GROW! You should have come uninvited…but I would not have wanted you to me shake my booty on the dancefloor after the nice lady kept refilling my wine glass…seemed like just one glass of wine lasting all evening.


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