Liatris is a genus of about 40 species of North American prairie plants with several species found in Illinois. Blazing stars occur in dry prairies, meadows, and open woodland. Some grow in moist prairies, along stream banks, and at the edges of moist woods. They are a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). As such, all blazing stars have disc florets, but without rays (petals). Flowers bloom on a spike from the top down in shades of pink, violet, or white. The name gayfeather refers to the long wands of feathery flower heads.
In their native habitats, blazing stars’ slender stems are supported by prairie grasses and other native forbs. The flowers tend to attract many pollinators, including monarch butterflies. Like other prairie plants, established blazing stars can send their roots deep into the soil.
Blazing stars have grass-like basal leaves and the foliage may be hairy or smooth. The prominent flower spikes provide a vertical, interesting element, especially when paired with daisy-like flowers, such as black-eyed Susans. Some blazing stars have many flower heads that are dense and attached directly to the stem. Others have looser, short-stalked flower heads that give the plant an airy look. Plants start blooming in early July and continue through October depending on the species. Flowering occurs over a period of several weeks. The upright, unbranched stems can be 1 to 5 feet tall, again depending on the species or cultivar. The flowering stems are popular for use in floral arrangements.
Buy plants in pots or buy bags of corms for spring planting. A corm is a swollen stem base modified into a mass of storage tissue. Think of it as a starchy tuber that anchors the plant and stores food. When planting corms, notice the dry roots on the bottom and perhaps some pale green shoots sprouting form the top. Place the corms, leafy side up, about 5 or 6 inches below the soil surface.
All blazing star species are tough, drought-tolerant plants for sunny spots in the home garden. During extended hot, dry weather, the lower leaves may wither. In general, most blazing stars grow well in good garden soil in full sun. A bonus—they are low maintenance. The spent stalks may be left standing for winter interest and to feed seed-eating birds. Cut the stems to the ground in early spring before foliage emerges.
Several cultivars are available, but you may need to order them online if you can’t find them at local garden centers. L. spicata ‘Floristan White’ has white flowers in July and August on plants that reach 3 to 4 feet tall. L. spicata ‘Kobold’ is a shorter selection with violet flowers on plants that reach 24 to 30 inches tall. See the Garden’s Liatris evaluation for additional cultivars.
Liatris flowers attract numerous native insects including monarch butterflies as well as common wood nymphs, great spangled fritillaries, skippers, and painted ladies. They also attract bumblebees, honeybees, miner bees, great sweat bees, leaf cutter bees, syrphid flies, and bee flies. Some of these insects feed on nectar while others seek pollen. They also attract ruby-throated hummingbirds seeking nectar. The caterpillars of the rare glorious flower moth (Schinia florida) feed on the flowers and seed capsules but damage, if any, is minimal.
Blazing stars make a great addition to a native pollinator garden where they will attract butterflies, bees, and moths. Plant them in a perennial border, in groupings of five or seven, where they can make a vertical statement. They are charming partners with black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, well-behaved goldenrods, baptisia, wild quinine, northern dropseed, penstemon, slender mountain mint, little bluestem, golden alexanders, lead plant, butterfly weed, Joe Pye weed, purple prairie clover, asters, coreopsis, and prairie sunflowers. They also pair well with pollinator-attracting annuals such as zinnias, tithonia, salvia, sunflowers, cosmos, dahlias, and nicotiana.
Learn more about the Garden's evaluation of blazing stars.
Here’s where you can find blazing stars at the Garden.