Monday, June 02, 2008


Golden Alexanders

This is the first in a series of notes for my own use about some flowers recently planted in my yard. Photographs come from the web site of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. References to Britton & Brown are to Nathaniel Lord Britton and Addison Brown, An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913; rpt. New York: Dover, 1970). Ethnobotanical information comes from the Native American Ethnobotany database.

Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea)

On the etymology of the common name, see the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), s.v. alexanders (a different plant):
Cf. Fr. alexandre (Lyte's Dodoens), alisandre Palsg., alisaundre, alissandere Godef., med.L. name Petroselinum Alexandrinum, a synonym of P. Macedonicum. The note in Holland's Pliny (1634) II. 30 that alisanders is 'a corrupt word from olus atrum, as if one would say olusatres,' seems disproved by the 10th c. alexandre.
The only OED definition of alexanders is:
An umbelliferous plant (Smyrnium olusatrum), called also Horse-parsley, formerly cultivated and eaten like celery.
Note that the scientific name of alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) reflects the discredited etymology from olus atrum.

Linnaeus originally named golden alexanders Smyrnium aureum, but W.D.J. Koch, "Generum tribuumque plantarum Umbelliferarum nova dispositio," Nova Acta Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino-Carolinae Germanicae Naturae Curiosorum 12.1 (1824) 55-156 (at 129) renamed the plant Zizia aurea in honor of German botanist Johann Baptist Ziz (1779-1829). The second half of the binomial (aurea) means "golden."

Britton & Brown (III, 641) describe the genus Zizia thus:
Perennial mostly glabrous herbs, with ternate or ternately compound leaves, or the basal ones undivided as in Thaspium, and compound umbels of yellow flowers, the central fruit of each umbellet sessile. Involucre none; involucels of several small bracts. Calyx-teeth prominent. Stylopodium none. Styles elongated. Fruit ovoid, or oblong, glabrous, or nearly so, somewhat flattened at right angles to the commissure, the ribs filiform, not winged; oil-tubes solitary in the intervals, with a small one under each rib. Seed-face flat.
Britton & Brown (ibid.) describe the species Zizia aurea thus:
Erect, glabrous, branched, 1°-2½° high. Basal and lower leaves long-petioled, 2-3-ternately compound, the segments ovate, or ovate-lanceolate, acute, acuminate or obtusish at the apex, 1'-2' long, sharply serrate; upper leaves shorter-petioled, ternate; rays of the umbels 9-25, stout, ascending, 1'-2' long; fruit oblong, nearly 2" long, about 1½" wide.

In fields, meadows, and swamps. New Brunswick to Ontario, Saskatchewan, South Dakota, Florida and Texas. April-June.
Thoreau saw golden alexanders on his trip to Minnesota. See Frank B. Sanborn, The First and Last Journeys of Thoreau: Lately Discovered among his Unpublished Journals and Manuscripts (Boston: Bibliophile Society, 1905), p. 34:
This was a noble crop for the two botanists. Before dining with the doctor, apparently, Thoreau had found on the prairie Osmorrhiza brevistylis and a Thaspium, of the variety apterum; and he adds, "Dr. Charles L. Anderson [his host] has this variety, and also the Zizia aurea."
According to Huron H. Smith, "Ethnobotany of the Meskwaki Indians," Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee 4 (1928) 175-326 (at 250), Zizia aurea was used as a headache remedy.

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