Liatris is a tough and undemanding prairie plant, tolerant of poor soil and less-than-ideal moisture situations. Itís also a perennial border standout and floristís staple. The long-lasting blooms of this summer- and fall-blooming American native attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. This is one wildflower that stands out wherever it's planted, be it roadside, naturalized area or formal garden.
Identification Some 30 species of liatris are native to nearly every state east of the Rocky Mountains as well as parts of Canada and Mexico. A number of the species and several cultivars are considered worthy of the ornamental garden. Early American settlers called this member of the Aster family "blazing star" or "gayfeather" because of its bright bottle brush-like flowers. Another pioneer name, “colic root,” referred to its medicinal use as an intestinal antispasmodic. Some types of liatris were known as “devil’s bite” or “button snakeroot” because of their reputation as a remedy for snakebite, particularly from rattlesnakes.
Monarch on L. aspera
The foliage of liatris is spiky and grass-like, with leaves that are larger at the base of the plant and become smaller at the top. In mid- to late summer, the stems produce many tiny, star-like florets. Unlike most other spike-flowered plants, liatris (with the exception of L. aspera) opens from the top of the spike downward, rather than from the bottom up. Depending on the variety, the spikes' blossoms may be purple, pinkish-purple or white, and grow from 1 to 5 feet high. In the fall, liatris foliage turns an attractive shade of bronze, and the dried stalks serve as swaying perches for birds attracted to the seedheads.
Culture Liatris plants prefer full sun but will accept some degree of shade. They are tolerant of a wide range of soils, but most require a well-drained situation. Plant in either early spring or in late summer or early autumn, spacing the plants about 1 foot apart. Watering regularly during its first year helps liatris become established, after which it becomes fairly drought-tolerant. Avoid overwatering, because it can cause plants to rot, and don't overfertilize, because it can cause the flower stalks to flop.
Depending on the species, liatris may emerge from a corm, rhizome or elongated root. Once liatris matures, you can propagate it by dividing large clumps in the spring, just as the leaves are emerging. Use a knife or sharp spade to separate the corms or roots.
Varieties Many kinds of liatris are readily available from nurseries and garden centers. Even small plants often bloom the first year they are planted, and they become more impressive every year. Species liatris are also readily grown from seed. Some varieties to look for include:
L. scariosa (Eastern blazing star, New England blazing star, tall gayfeather) typically grows from 2 to 4 feet. If cultivated in a more fertile setting, it may require staking. The lavender, rose or white flowers resemble buttons, with individual flower heads growing from short stalks coming off the stem.
L. aspera (rough blazing star) features pink flowers on 1- to 3-foot spikes, blooming from August through October. Hardy to zone 4, this liatris prefers dry to moderately moist soil, and can be found growing in sandy fields and dunes.
L. pycnostachya (prairie blazing star, Kansas gayfeather, cattail gayfeather or button snakeroot) is hardy to zone 3 and prefers moist or even wet sites. The flowers may be purple, rose-purple or white, and appear on 2- to 5-foot spikes between July and September.
L. ligulistylis (meadow blazing star, round-headed blazing star, showy blazing star) prefers moderate moisture, and can be found growing in meadows, prairies and along the banks of streams. Pink to purple, 3- to 5-foot flower spikes appear in August and September. This liatris is particularly attractive to butterflies and is hardy to zone 4.
L. punctata (dotted blazing star or spotted gayfeather) is a drought-tolerant native of the Great Plains. Its long tap root makes it useful for xeriscaping. Pink flowers appear on 1- to 2-foot spikes in July through September. L. punctata is hardy in zones 4 through 8.
L. spicata (dense blazing star or spike gayfeather), hardy to zone 3, likes moisture and is found in marshes and meadows. Its rose-purple flower spikes reach 1 1/2 to 5 feet in August and September. Among the hybridized forms of L. spicata are ‘Alba’, with pure white flowers and ‘Floristan Violet’ with strong, bright violet stems. ‘Kobold’ is a small, compact plant, reaching only 18 to 24 inches high, with deep purple blooms.
Garden Uses Liatris is an obvious choice for providing color to a naturalized planting, where it pairs well with prairie grasses, echinacea and coneflower. It’s also right at home in more formal settings, where the tall stalks provide punctuation and contrast to mound-shaped perennials. The warm rosy-purple blooms of liatris are a good foil for yellow flowers such as goldenrod, coreopsis and later-blooming golden daylilies, as well as silver-leaved plants like lamb’s ears and wormwood. Although the spikes look handsome planted in large groups or drifts, they also work well planted here and there as single accents. Shorter cultivars are best appreciated near the front of the border. Taller varieties needn’t be relegated to the rear of the garden -- they make great “see-through” perennials, adding texture and variety to the border when you place them in front of shorter plants. Liatris and Critters In my research about liatris, I learned that this plant is beneficial to the diet of deer and antelope, and can be used as food for grazing livestock such as sheep. Although I have no livestock, my urban garden is home to herds of rabbits and chipmunks. Unfortunately, these critters do more than just nibble foliage -- once they bite through a tall stalk, you can say goodbye to its flowers for the season. After bunnies decimated most of my magnificent 5-foot-tall white L. pycnostachya, I salvaged the remaining two stalks by wrapping them in plastic netting (the kind that oranges come in) up to about 12 inches -- not pretty to look at, but preferable to gnawed stumps.
Cutting and Drying Floral arrangers favor tall stems of liatris for adding a colorful vertical element to their designs. You can also use liatris in dried arrangements. Whether you’re harvesting the flowers for fresh or dried use, cut the stalks when the flowers are only one-half to two-thirds open. Liatris is easy to preserve by hanging the stalks upside down and allowing them to air dry for several weeks. Good air circulation is important as the flowers dry, otherwise they are apt to become moldy. Drying liatris in a dessicant such as sand or silica gel may help preserve more of the flower’s bright color.
Photo credits: thumbnail by wallgrom butterfly on L. aspera by mccormaka L. spicata by Sentrawoods DG Member photos: L. scariosa by poppysue L. aspera by sittingbones L. pycnostachya by ADKSpirit L. ligulistylis by Moby L. punctata by Joy L. spicata by Floridian
About Gwen Bruno
After spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.