Native Plant Spotlight: Golden Alexanders

During the quiet time between spring and summer, Golden Alexanders (Zizia spp.) truly shine and can be seen blooming all over the City. They are a staple plant at NBN for many reasons —and while they are having their moment in the sun, we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight why we love them. 

Butterfly rain garden featuring Zizia aurea with Pycnanthemum, Rudbeckia and Monarda among others; photos by super gardener Dana D., Jeff Park, Chicago.

Are Golden Alexanders native?

Yes! Golden Alexanders have a wide native range extending across the eastern half of North America, from northern Canada all the way to Texas and reaching as far as Montana. It occurs in nearly all Illinois counties.

How can you identify Golden Alexanders?

Right now the easiest way to identify Golden Alexander is by their bright yellow flowers. These flowers are arranged in what’s botanically called an “umbel”, an aptly named umbrella-like shape that is indicative of plants in the carrot family. They typically reach 2.5-3’ tall and have compound leaves.

Want to get “into the weeds” on learning about this plant? Check out a world of info here

How long do Golden Alexanders bloom?

Golden Alexanders bloom from late spring to early summer for about one month, typically starting in mid to late May and continuing through July in this area. After flower, they leave behind beautiful chartreuse seed heads that blend in well with species like Echinacea purpurea and Monarda fistulosa

How do you grow Golden Alexanders?

These native species are fairly easy to grow, are happy in a wide variety of sun and soil conditions and can fill in an area quickly. They do prefer full to partial sun and relatively moist soils that have good drainage. That being said, golden alexanders in the landscape do not appear to be that picky and adapt well to a variety of light conditions, even handling light shade under trees, and can also do well in sandy or clay soils.

Do Golden Alexanders spread?

Yes! They are carefree, successful spreaders, and tend to form dense colonies with their fibrous roots and can take over areas (in a good way!). They are considered short-lived perennials but also seed around to re-establish the colony over time. In the garden setting, it’s best to leave space for this plant to do its thing; it benefits from occasional thinning out if you prefer to keep it in one spot. If wishing to limit this plant’s spread, simply clip and remove the seed heads before they ripen and fall to the ground.

Plant some Zizia and just wait a minute for a pair of black swallowtail butterflies to show up —it'll happen; photos by super gardener Dana D., Jeff Park, Chicago.

Is Golden Alexander a pollinator plant?

YES! Golden alexanders are knockout plants for pollinators for many different reasons:

  • They bloom at a crucial time in the pollinator year when there is a lull in blooms after the initial spring flush and before the summer kicks off. They offer key nectar and pollen resources when there is relatively little else available to pollinators.
  • They have small blooms which accommodate smaller pollinators like sweat bees. They also support a wide range of other bees, wasps, and beetles.
  • They are a host plant for two swallowtail butterflies, the black swallowtail and Ozark swallowtail. This means that adult swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on this plant for caterpillars to feed on the foliage. Once the caterpillars grow big enough, they metamorphosize into adult butterflies to continue the cycle.

Pictured: Black swallowtail caterpillar munching a leaf of Zizia aptera (heart-leaved golden Alexanders).

What are companion plants for Golden Alexander?

For a pollinator patch with year-round interest, consider planting Zizia with Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower), Asclepias sullivantii (prairie milkweed), and Symphyotrichum laeve (smooth blue aster)

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