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Swallowtail Caterpillars & Golden Alexanders

Jill enjoys cooking, abstract painting, stewardship & learning about gardening.

Here's our young golden alexanders plant in  spring, its leaves dappled with pollen.

Here's our young golden alexanders plant in spring, its leaves dappled with pollen.

All in the (Carrot) Family

Black swallowtail and Ozark woodland swallowtail caterpillars like to munch on all members of the carrot family, including dill, fennel, parsley, heart-leafed meadow parsnip, yellow pimpernel, Queen Anne's lace and, of course, golden alexanders, which is also sometimes called golden zizia.

A Swallowtail caterpillar on dill.

A Swallowtail caterpillar on dill.

Golden Alexanders

Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea) is one of the host plants preferred by the caterpillars of black swallowtail butterflies and Ozark swallowtail butterflies.

Although it's considered a wildflower, golden alexanders grows like a weed. And it looks like one, too, with its relatively relaxed habit; smooth, green saw-tooth leaves; and unprepossessing yellow flower heads.

An herbaceous perennial that self seeds, golden alexanders is an easy plant to naturalize. It's also a fuss-free native in many areas of Canada and the continental USA, probably because it grows so well under so many different conditions.

Thinking of adding Zizia aurea to your butterfly-friendly yard?

You shouldn't have any difficulty getting it to grow.

Golden alexanders blooms for about a month, from late spring to early summer. Caterpillars eat their leaves and flowers.

Golden alexanders blooms for about a month, from late spring to early summer. Caterpillars eat their leaves and flowers.

Soil, Light, Water

Clay, loam, sandy soil—golden alexanders grows just fine in all three.

And location doesn't factor much into its ability to survive either, as it can thrive in shade and partial shade as well as full sun.

Golden alexanders won't, however, grow well in wetlands, but it's perfectly okay with moist soil—or dry soil for that matter.

Flowers & Fruit

From April into June, golden alexanders produces yellow flowers, which later form flat, oblong fruit.

Although its flowers attract all sorts of pollinators, golden alexanders self-pollinates, too. The plant is definitely a survivor!

A Swallowtail's Life in Time-Lapse Photography

A Growable Feast (For Swallowtails and Others)

Caterpillars & Aphids

Black swallowtails live throughout the eastern U.S. as well as in some parts of Canada.

They can also be found in Colorado, southeastern California and the northern regions of South America.

Ozark Swallowtail

Ozark woodland swallowtails are common to the Missouri Ozarks and northern Arkansas. Pictured: a female of the species.

Ozark woodland swallowtails are common to the Missouri Ozarks and northern Arkansas. Pictured: a female of the species.

Although not endangered, Ozark swallowtails have a more limited habitat. They are only common in the Ozark region of Missouri and in northern Arkansas.

The caterpillars of both black and Ozark swallowtails like to feed on members of the Carrot family, including the flowers and leaves of golden alexanders.

The Rigid Sunflower Borer Moth goes for golden alexanders' stems.

And two types of aphids are also highly attracted to golden alexanders (and other members of its family).

Black Swallowtail

A female black swallowtail on butterfly weed in our front yard, where she laid eggs.

A female black swallowtail on butterfly weed in our front yard, where she laid eggs.

Here in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed (as many parts of Canada and the Continental U.S.) Zizia aurea is considered a native plant. It grows wild here everywhere, in the coastal plains, the Piedmont region and the mountains.

We received a small pot of golden zizia for free while attending an Earth Day celebration at Annmarie Garden in Calvert County. It's more than tripled in size since we planted it in the spring, despite being partially devoured by deer—although it's supposed to be deer resistant. Apparently the deer in our neighborhood didn't get the memo.

Pollinators

Lots of insects are attracted by the pollen and/or nectar of golden alexanders' flowers, especially short-tongued bees like masked bees, green metallic bees and Andrenid bees.

Wasps, including Eumenine wasps, spider wasps, Ichneumonid wasps, and Crabronine wasps also are attracted to them, as are flies and beetles.

And bumble bees, which are long-tongued bees, also sometimes visit golden alexanders' flowers.

Starting Golden Alexanders

From Seed

Plant golden alexanders seed (after stratification) in the fall. It germinates best in soil that's a little cool.

You can also allow established plants to go to seed in the fall and self sow.

By Division

Golden alexanders can be propagated by division as well. Divide plant clumps in fall or early spring for transplanting.

Other Swallowtail Host Plants

Dill

A field of dill weed cultivated in Flathead Valley, Montana.

A field of dill weed cultivated in Flathead Valley, Montana.

A swallowtail caterpillar on dill.

A swallowtail caterpillar on dill.

Fennel

Parsley

Swallowtail eggs on parsley leaves.

Swallowtail eggs on parsley leaves.

Multiple swallowtail caterpillars feed on a patch of flat-leaved parsley.

Multiple swallowtail caterpillars feed on a patch of flat-leaved parsley.

Queen Anne's Lace

Also called wild carrot, Queen Anne's lace is another wildflower well-loved by many pollinators, including butterflies.

Also called wild carrot, Queen Anne's lace is another wildflower well-loved by many pollinators, including butterflies.

Black swallowtails use plants in the carrot (Apiaceae) family throughout their life cycle.

Common NameBotanical NameFeatures

Dill

Anethum graveolens

tall, leggy plants w/edible foliage & seeds

Fennel

Foeniculum vulgare

compact herb w/thick stalks, bulbous base; resembles dill

Golden Alexander

Zizia aurea

smooth, green, toothed leaves & yellow flowers

Heart-leaved Meadow Parsnip

Zizia aptera

simple heart-shaped basal leaves

Parsley

Petroselinium var.

biennial herb w/flat & curly-leaved varieties

Queen Anne's Lace (Wild Carrot)

Daucus carota

biennial wildflower 3 - 4' tall w/one or more hairy, hollow stems & umbrella-shaped flower clusters

Yellow Pimpernel

Taenidia integerrima

compound leaves; untoothed leaflets

stop-the-mulch-madness-common-mulching-mistakes

About the Author

The Dirt Farmer has been an active gardener for over 30 years.

She first began gardening alongside her grandfather on her parents' farm.

Today, The Dirt Farmer gardens at home, volunteers at community gardens and continues to learn about gardening through the MD Master Gardener program.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Jill Spencer

Comments

Krissa Klein from California on August 01, 2014:

When I was a kid we had a huge fennel plant in the front yard, and I loved to watch the caterpillars grow. It was fun to poke them sometimes and see the huge smelly orange horns shoot up from their heads, too!

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on April 28, 2014:

Hi Peggy W! The golden alexanders is already blooming here. Can't wait for the caterpillars! Hope you're doing fine in TX. (: Take care, Jill

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 28, 2014:

I have seen caterpillars that look like that decimating my flat leaf parsley in past years. Not sure if there are other similar looking caterpillars or not. Interesting hub and I enjoyed the video. Going to pin this to my butterflies and insects board.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on September 07, 2013:

Hi Alun! I had never seen a swallowtail caterpillar until last year on a butterfly weed. It's so bizarre looking in person--like a clay-mation cartoon character--that I wanted to attract more to our yard, hence the golden alexanders. Thanks for commenting! Take it easy, Jill

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on September 07, 2013:

Jill; Interesting and informative essay on the life history of these swallowtail butterflies and their relationship with Golden Alexanders (Unusual name for a flower?) The opening photograph is superb, and the time lapse video is also very good. good article for both gardeners and lovers of butterflies. alun.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on August 14, 2013:

O, that's a great idea. Thanks....

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 14, 2013:

Hi Patricia! You should grab some dried seed heads the next time you're at that field. Thanks for the angels. I need them! Take care, Jill

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on August 14, 2013:

Just the other day I passed a huge field filled with Queen Anne's lace...I have none here but have considered getting some. I remember it growing around our property as a young child. Love to attract butterflies...have added other new plants this summer that do so and have many more of the lovely insects this year.Thanks for sharing, Jill. Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on July 23, 2013:

Hi Glimmer Twin Fan! Glad you're going to grow butterfly weed again. It's one of my favorites. So many critters love it.

@Patty--I can't believe Henry bit you. That's hysterical! Sorry he didn't live. It would have been really cool if your friend's daughter could have seen the life cycle up close.

@ Crystal--Appreciate your kind words! Thanks for reading. --Jill

Crystal Tatum from Georgia on July 22, 2013:

Love the illustrations with this hub! Nice job.

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on July 22, 2013:

Your pictures are lovely and I've never seen a field of dill before.

Caterpillars are fun to watch. A friend's daughter had a dark brown furry version that she called "Henry." He climbed my finger one day, seemed to sit up straight, and chomped my finger; he must have been hungry. Unfortunately, he or she died because the little girl moved him around too much to allow him to cocoon.

Claudia Mitchell on July 22, 2013:

We seem to have a lot of butterflies this year. Not sure why. Your hub reminded me to add butterfly weed to my sunny border. I always had it at my last house and it was amazing how many butterflies it attracted. Another lovely hub. Shared/pinned.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on July 21, 2013:

Hey Pearl! Your yard sounds like a butterfly buffet! Thanks for the votes & the shares. We have lots of swallowtails here this year, too, especially the tiger swallowtails. They're hanging out all over the butterfly bushes this week. Take care, Jill

Connie Smith from Southern Tier New York State on July 21, 2013:

Jill, I have this growing along the road, but I never knew what it was! I do have a lot of swallowtails around here. I always thought it was because of the dill and queen anne's lace. I'm sure the golden alexander has a lot to do with it as well.

Thanks for sharing all this useful info; as always I learn something new from you every time ;) Pearl

Voted UP+++ and pinned

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 11, 2013:

What a beautiful nature hub! Great study of the insect and the plant. Thanks also for the pictures and the very interesting video. Voted Up!

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on July 10, 2013:

Thanks, Deb! I though the video was very elegant, too. Appreciate your comments. --Jill

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on July 10, 2013:

This was a great piece. I enjoyed the caterpillar video, and there is nothing like the beautiful movement of this wonderful creature. Great article!

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on July 09, 2013:

Hi moonlake! The tiger swallowtails are what we seem to have the most of! And lots of skipperjacks, I think they're called. Is that right? I've never planted milkweed but would really like to. Hope more butterflies come your way! They're such a delight to encounter. Nice to hear from you, Jill

moonlake from America on July 09, 2013:

We haven't had many Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies this year. The Monarchs so far I have counted two in the yard. The milkweed is just getting ready to bloom so I'm hoping once it blooms the smell will bring them in. Enjoyed your hub I always forget to put parsley in the garden and I know the Swallowtails love it. When I go to my sisters I will have to look for the Black Swallowtail if it's not to late for them. Voted up and shared.

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