Golden Alexanders Support Tiny Wildlife

Red spotted Purple butterfly caterpillar on Beach plum (Prunus maritima)
Camouflaged Caterpillar
May 15, 2020
Eastern Calligrapher fly (Toxomerus geminatus) on Golden Ragwort (Packera aureus)
Calligrapher flower flies are great beneficial insects
June 9, 2020

The first big wave of showy color in our meadow each spring is the native plant Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea). The tiny wildlife it attracts requires a close up look.

The flower show starts with a flush of greenish yellow from the buds. Next, the yellow to golden flowers last for weeks and are replaced by new buds that keep forming. This native plant plays an important role in our yard for wildlife. Golden Alexanders’ nectar and pollen are the main attraction for small wildlife like insects.
On a warm sunny day during peak bloom, wildlife watching gets exciting! From a distance, the flowers look big because they grow in large flat-topped umbels like other members of the carrot family. But the actual flower is tiny, only about 1/16 of an inch. I get down on my knees for a closer look and wow - there are tons of TINY bees, wasps, and flies. The insects are in constant motion, either crawling across the umbel or flying to a new spot. Every now and then a larger insect like a northern paper wasp or bumble bee flies by. Some insects seem to just fly around. Those could be males in search of a female, or predators looking for a meal.

Golden Alexanders is a great plant for supporting early season pollinator wildlife like Andrenid bees.

The flowers attract many kinds of insects, but especially short-tongued bees, wasps, and flies. This is a great plant for supporting early season pollinators like Andrenid bees. These small native bees are called "mining" or "digger" bees. Like many of our native bees, they are solitary, ground nesting bees that dig tunnels in the ground. After finding several with mud on them, I learned that the female digs tunnel chambers, creates a ball of pollen, and lays an egg on it that feeds the larvae until it can crawl out of the chamber. One of the bee species that is likely in our yard is called the Golden-Alexanders Andrena. It’s a specialist that has evolved to feed its young exclusively the pollen of this particular plant.
While Golden Alexanders doesn’t attract many butterflies (they have long tongues), it IS a host plant for Black Swallowtail caterpillars. These caterpillars wipe out the non-native parsley and dill in my garden. So when I find them, I can safely relocate them to the native Golden Alexanders and save my garden plants for cooking.
The Golden Alexanders plants during bloom are so dense in areas of our meadow, they appear to have taken over. But within a month, they’ll be hidden in the understory of the next waves of blooming plants like Monardas and Asters. They retain healthy leaves during the summer and attractive seed heads into winter.
According to planting guides, Golden Alexanders prefers moist soil, but are tolerant of other conditions. Well, ours are so tolerant they THRIVE in dry soil with full sun. I took a walk yesterday in a local wooded “swamp”– wet heavy clay soil and no direct sun. And there, with the complete opposite condition, were many plants in bloom too. Our plants are located in a prime deer grazing spot, but either they aren’t tasty or just not as tasty as asters and other plants they grow with as a community.

We enjoy Golden Alexanders (Zizia) for its early wave of bloom and beneficial wildlife rely on it. It is truly a winner of a native plant!