Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Golden Alexanders

Today’s featured wildflower comes courtesy of Leland Searles, a photographer, birder, naturalist, Iowa Master Conservationist, Master River Steward, and owner of the ecological consulting firm Leeward Ecology. He contributed the photographs and commentary below about Golden Alexanders, a brilliant yellow spring wildflower. You can view more of his photography here. Lee also put together the Raccoon River Watershed Phenology calendar, which is a must-have for Iowans who love native plants and any wildlife (mammals, birds, reptiles, insects).

This post is also a mid-week open thread: all topics welcome.

Golden Alexanders (Zizea aurea), by Leland Searles

Golden Alexanders is a native perennial plant of wetland margins and moist soils. It blooms in April and later. Gardeners and prairie restorationists may consider it for rain gardens, wet slopes, and ephemeral seeps. It is hardy during dry seasons and droughty conditions.

Zizea aurea belongs to the Carrot or Parsley Family (Apiaceae), along with a wide range of familiar native plants and weeds. As with other members of the family, the leaves alternate along the stem, and they are compound. The leaflets of Golden Alexanders tend to be oval or narrow and further divided into one or more side lobes. The edges are toothed.

The yellow flowers are arranged in a flat-topped cluster, known as an “umbel,” at the top of a branched stem to about three feet tall. Individual flowers usually are small, on the order of 1/8 inch across, and often with five petals. The cluster or umbel opens into several distinct small clusters of several blossoms, each at the end of its own short stem.

Familiar examples from the same family include Garden Dill, Queen-Anne’s-Lace or Wild Carrot, Water Hemlock, Cow Parsnip, and Wild Parsnip. It can be confused with the last species, which also has yellow flowers. Queen-Anne’s-Lace umbels form “birdnests” in the fall as they produce seeds, while Golden Alexanders seedheads remain open. An unusual member of the family is Rattlesnake Master, a priarie native, that has tough leaves with fibers along the edge, making it resemble yucca leaves, and flowers arranged into several dense balls at the top of the flowering stem. A much over-looked relative is Chervil, a spring-flowering woodland plant.

Many beneficial insect species are drawn to the flowers, which blossom from May through June and possibly later. I’ve seen ants taking nectar from the small flowers, and several kinds of flower fly visit the heads. Less well-known bees, such as leaf-cuter, large and small carpenter, and sweat bees are important pollinators of the plant.

Historically Zizea aurea has been used by Native Americans and European settles for medicinal purposes, notably for fevers and headaches.

Golden Alexanders is easily grown from seed, which may be obtained from a prairie seed source or from a mesic to wet prairie area, with the owner’s permission. It spreads readily from seed, so it has a tendency to crowd out other species and may need to be controlled by thinning, cutting, and seed collection.

An entire plant in bloom:

Golden Alexander plant photo ZizeaaureusGoldenAlexanders-SOGDM2012-04-19aLMS_zps5ac29d95.jpg

Close-up of an umbel in bloom, with an ant:

Golden Alexander with ant photo unidformicinaeonZizea-SOGDM2014-05-18dLMS_zpsf2b6daad.jpg

A tiny flower fly, Toxomerus marginatus (no common name), an the detail of individual Golden Alexander flowers.

Golden Alexander with insect photo TOXMAR-SOGDM2014-05-16dLMS_zps31c1d160.jpg

Tags: Wildflowers

About the Author(s)


  • Waldren

    The Iowa Gun Owners (not a member of the group) sent me a phone message last night letting me know they had endorsed Matt Waldren in IA-2.  I guess they are not interested in playing a role in who wins that contest.  

    • that is hilarious

      I was wondering if anyone would support him. This will be a sign of how many Republicans listen to Iowa Gun Owners.

  • HD-43 primary

    Do you have any info on Kim Robinson and Nicholas Dreeszen? I haven’t seen campaign materials, signs, or anything. I know that as close as Susan Judkins came in 2012, 2014 will probably be tougher for Democrats in this district, but I still want to support a quality candidate for the primary.

  • Golden Alexanders and Wild Parsnip

    It’s important to learn the differences between these two species, and the differences are very obvious if one looks. There have been a few unfortunate instances of Golden Alexanders being mistaken for Wild Parsnip and suffering the consequences.