July 2023: Blazing star
July is when native wildflowers bloom in meadows under the hot summer sun. Homegrown Habitat author Sarah Middeleer has chosen Blazing star as this month’s plant. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In July and August the native meadow flowers start to shine. A standout is blazing star (Liatris spicata), also known as gayfeather due to its feathery flower heads. Its showy purple flowers appear on stalks two to four feet, but occasionally to six-feet high, blooming progressively from the top down. This sequential blooming extends the season, sometimes until fall. Blazing star’s narrow, grass-like leaves extend off the stalks in attractive arcs and turn bronze in the fall. This member of the aster family grows nine to 18 inches wide. It is native to much of the Eastern U.S.
Blazing star is pollinated by many native bees, butterflies, and flies, including specialists (who use only this plant). The butterflies include monarch, sulphurs, tiger swallowtail, Aphrodite fritillary, and painted lady. Songbirds, especially goldfinches and chickadees, are drawn to the fruits, known as cypselae. Bluebirds are attracted by the insects, and hummingbirds drink from its tubular flowers. The larvae of Liatris flower moth feed on its flowers and seeds. These caterpillars in turn feed insectivorous birds. As for garden pests, deer are said not to favor blazing star, but larvae of the Liatris borer moth caterpillars eat the stems.
Blazing star favors moist ground in the wild but can tolerate drier soils. However, it is intolerant of wet soils in winter. It adapts well to a variety of soil textures. Blazing star needs at least six hours of full sun. It is low maintenance but may require staking if planted in very rich soil. It tolerates high heat and humidity.
As the flowering proceeds down the stalk, resist the urge to “deadhead” the spent blooms, because the goldfinches are eagerly awaiting the resulting fruit.
As it matures, blazing star will form a clump generated by corms (bulb-like underground stems that store food and generate new leaves and stems). If the clump begins to die off in the center, dig it up, divide it, and replant the divisions–which will invigorate your blazing star and allow you to create drifts of it or spread it around the garden.
Blazing star will work well in many garden locations, including the perennial border, cottage garden, rock garden, rain garden, and native/pollinator/butterfly gardens.
It is an excellent choice for meadows and pond edges, combining well with native grasses and yellow-flowered native plants like sunflowers and goldenrods. You can also grow it in containers, where it may need more watering than in the garden. To overwinter potted blazing star, move it to a sheltered location, heaped with mulch or leaves. You can even bury the entire container. These methods help to protect the roots from freeze-thaw cycles in winter. (Note: clay containers are at risk of cracking if left planted and above ground in winter.)
Blazing star also makes a good cut flower and can be dried. For use in vases, harvest the stalks when they have first started to bloom at the top. They will continue their bloom sequence over the next two weeks. Its botanical species name, Liatris, is said to convey joy, bliss, and happiness; thus, blazing star is often used for weddings and other romantic occasions.
Native Americans have used blazing star as medicine for a variety of conditions, from sore throats to kidney disease. The leaves and roots are said to have anti-bacterial and insect repellent properties.
Kim Eierman, The Pollinator Victory Garden Win the War on Pollinator Decline with Ecological Gardening, Quarto Publishing Group USA, 2020
Laura Erickson, 100 Plants to Feed the Birds Turn Your Home Garden Into a Healthy Bird Habitat, Storey Publishing, 2022