Ask A Master Gardener – Blazingstars in the Garden

Authored by Carolyn Aita, Master Gardener Volunteer Intern

Photo credit: Mike Aita

Comet Neowise has graced our skies.  Who can forget the sight of a blazing comet?  Blazingstars, the namesakes of the celestial occurrence, blaze unforgettably in the landscape.  This large group of native plants, also known as gayfeather or by its anglicized genus name, liatris, are found throughout North America.  The name “blazingstar” aptly describes a common feature of their growth form:  multiple flowers zig-zag along spikes that shoot up from the center of low-growing clusters of lance-like leaves.  The leaf cluster is pleasant but the floral spike is spectacular, a wand of flowers in vibrant shades of pink-lavender to mid-purple that bloom from the top of the spike down.  Blazingstars are uniquely showy plants, and six species that are native to Wisconsin work well as landscape plants in our gardens.

Three of these Wisconsinites like moist feet:  meadow blazingstar (Liatris ligulistylis) prairie blazingstar (Liatris pycnostachya) and dense blazingstar (Liatris spicata).  In the wild, these plants grow in full sun in moist prairies, at the edges of moist woodlands, and in areas of low-lying vegetation near water.  The floral spikes of meadow, prairie, and dense blazingstar can get tall – four to five feet under favorable conditions of moisture and sunlight.  They bloom alongside boneset, great blue lobelia, swamp milkweed, cardinal flower, fringed loosestrife and mid-height bunch grasses in the moist meadows that are their natural home.  In our tame gardens, these plants add an attractive slender vertical element to even the most formal design.  Dense blazingstar is designated “of special concern” meaning it is suspected of disappearing from its natural habitat in Wisconsin.  But it is a favorite of commercial growers and it is the liatris species most often found in garden centers frequented by casual shoppers.  Perhaps in the future we will find this lovely plant only in gardens.

For soil on the dry side, consider three native Wisconsinites that like to keep their feet dry:  rough blazingstar (Liatris aspera), dotted blazingstar (Liatris puctata), and cylindrical blazingstar (Liatris cylindracea).  Rough blazingstar, also known as tall blazingstar, is a denizen of dry tall grass prairies.  It is similar in appearance to meadow blazingstar with floral tufts zig-zagging along five foot spikes.  Individual plants bloom for as long as three weeks.

Dotted and cylindrical blazingstar have a mature height of less than two feet.  These plants are tiny but mighty.  Dotted blazingstar has a tap root system extends sixteen feet down into the ground and spreads three feet laterally in dry, coarse soils.  Its extensive deep roots make it extremely valuable for the stabilization of slopes with poor soil.  Dotted blazingstar is an endangered species in Wisconsin although it continues to flourish elsewhere.  The low profiles of dotted and cylindrical blazingstar makes them well suited for use in rock gardens.  Their drought tolerance makes them ideal ground covers for difficult rocky hilly areas of the garden where turf is not practical or desirable.

Prairie, marsh, and cylindrical blazingstar bloom from July to September.  Meadow, rough, and dotted blazingstar bloom later, from August to October.  Beneficial insects, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds visit all of these plants for sustenance.  Bumble bees, long-horned bees, and leaf cutter bees feast on blazingstar pollen.  Meadow blazing star in particular is a monarch butterfly favorite, providing late-season nectar for these migrating beauties.

Happy gardening.

Carolyn Aita

Master Gardener Volunteer Intern

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