How To Identify The Plant
The herbaceous perennial Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea and Zizia aptera) can grow up to 2½ ft. tall. They display occasional light green, hairless, lateral stems. The compound leaves are green, shiny, hairless, pinnate with either 3 or 5 leaflets. The lower compound leaves have long petioles that become shorter as the leaves alternate upward along the stems. The leaflets are up to 3" long and 2" across, lanceolate, ovate, cordate, or broadly oblong in shape, although the larger leaflets sometimes have 1-2 cleft lobes. Leaflet margins are serrated.
Flat to slightly rounded compound umbels of yellow flowers occur at the ends of the upper stems. Each compound umbel is about 2-3" across and consists of approximately 12 umbellets. There are about 21 flowers in each umbellet. The central flower is sessile during the blooming period. Each flower is about 1/8" across with 5 yellow petals that curve inward.
The bloom period lasts approximately one month in late spring to early summer. The flowers are scented. Seeds are oblong and flattened, not winged, with several lighter-colored longitudinal ridges. The root system consists of a dense cluster of coarse fibrous roots that can easily be divided and transplanted.
Habitat and Cultivation
To thrive, the plant requires full to partial sun, although it will tolerate light shade under trees. It prefers moist loam soil that can contain some rocky material. Foliage diseases rarely occur. Seeds can be difficult to germinate; otherwise this plant is easy to grow and maintain.
Habitats include moist black-soil prairies, openings in moist and mesic woodlands, areas along woodland paths, limestone glades, savannas, thickets, sparsely wooded bluffs, power line clearances in wooded areas, and abandoned fields. Golden Alexanders occur in both degraded and higher quality habitats. They adapt readily to habitat restoration areas.
The flowers are attractive to many kinds of insects seeking pollen or nectar, especially short-tongued bees, wasps, flies, and beetles. Among the short-tongued bee varieties are green metallic bees, masked bees, and mining bees. Wasp visitors include potter wasps, spider wasps, Ichneumonid wasps, and Crabronine wasps. Long-tongued bees such as bumblebees and cuckoo bees (Nomada spp.) also visit the flowers, as do some small butterflies and true bugs.
In spite of the large number of insect visitors covering the blooms, the plant can still self-pollinate.
Caterpillars of the butterflies Papilio polyxenes asterius (Black Swallowtail) and Papilio joanae (Ozark Swallowtail)) feed on the leaves and flowers. Two varieties of aphids suck the plant juices from Golden Alexanders as well as similar species in the Carrot family.
Be sure you correctly identify this plant in the wild before touching it. Golden Alexanders are sometimes confused with Pastinaca sativa (Wild Parsnip), a weedy Eurasian biennial that causes severe blisters when it comes in contact with the skin. The latter is taller, blooms later, and has more leaflets in each compound leaf. It can be particularly difficult to distinguish Golden Alexanders from Thaspium trifoliatum aureum (Yellow Meadow Parsnip), which is another native perennial plant. In the latter, the central flower of each umbellet has a short pedicel, winged achenes, and the basal leaves are simple rather than trifoliate. Otherwise, these two species display nearly identical characteristics.
This plant is an excellent addition to a wildflower garden, providing accessible nectar for many beneficial insects with short mouthparts during the spring and early summer when these types of flowers are relatively uncommon.
To eat as a fresh vegetable, peel the stems and boil for five to ten minutes or until tender. Do the same with the unripe flower heads or eat them raw.
Give the larger leaves a quick blanch. Younger leaves can be eaten raw.
Scrub, peel and slice the roots like you would parsnips. Toss in canola or sunflower oil, season to taste, and roast at 350°F for 20 minutes or until tender.