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Swallowtail Caterpillars & Golden Alexanders

Updated on November 6, 2013
Swallowtail butterflies use members of the Carrot family as host plants, including the wildflower golden alexanders (Zizia aurea).
Swallowtail butterflies use members of the Carrot family as host plants, including the wildflower golden alexanders (Zizia aurea). | Source
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. | Source

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.

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. | Source

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.

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 & 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. | Source

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. | Source

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

Source

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. | Source
A swallowtail caterpillar on dill.
A swallowtail caterpillar on dill. | Source

Fennel

Source

Parsley

Swallowtail eggs on parsley leaves.
Swallowtail eggs on parsley leaves. | Source
Multiple swallowtail caterpillars feed on a patch of flat-leaved parsley.
Multiple swallowtail caterpillars feed on a patch of flat-leaved parsley. | Source

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. | Source

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

Common Name
Botanical Name
Features
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
Source

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.

© 2013 Jill Spencer

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    • KL Klein profile image

      Krissa Klein 3 years ago from California

      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!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 3 years ago from United States

      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 W profile image

      Peggy Woods 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      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.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      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 profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

      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.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

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

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      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

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      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

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      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 profile image

      Crystal Tatum 4 years ago from Georgia

      Love the illustrations with this hub! Nice job.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 4 years ago from North America

      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.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      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.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      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

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      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

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 4 years ago from The Caribbean

      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!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

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

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

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

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      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 profile image

      moonlake 4 years ago from America

      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.