Hummingbirds love these breezy, nectar-rich blooms.
By Ann Wilson, Geneva, Illinois
Liatris is a North American native prairie plant that deserves a place in any backyard. These easy-care perennials emerge from the earth as grassy tufts. They fill in nicely around the feet of early-blooming perennials. Then, by midsummer, they seem to rise as exclamation points to punctuate flower beds.
The tall and feathery purple, rose or white spires lure in bevies of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Then the flowers eventually give way to fluffy seedpods, which nourish birds through fall and winter.
There's plenty to love about this flower. Also known as blazing star and gayfeather, the plant is simple to start from woody, bulb-like corms that can be ordered from a catalog, or you can start liatris from seed. Also, most gardeners can easily find plants for sale at their local garden center in spring.
One of the best things about liatris is that they're reliable. These hardy plants return year after year, and oftentimes reseed to create colonies of colorful clumps that bring in droves of hummingbirds.
During the height of growth, the bottlebrush-like spikes of liatris grow up to 5 feet, bringing eye-catching vertical forms to the middle or back of the garden. If you look closely at one of the blooms, you'll see small, disklike flowers open from the top to bottom along the spike. This makes flowers attractive additions to bouquets, especially since they have a long vase life and keep their beauty for nearly 2 weeks.
A Notable Native
Liatris is a native of northeastern North America and naturally occurs in marshes, prairies and meadows from Ontario to Florida and New York to Michigan. One of more than 30 species in the Liatris genus, Liatris spicata is the most commonly cultivated type of this flower. Spicata derives from the Latin word spica, which means spike and aptly describes the plant's flowering forms.
Early settlers and Native Americans appreciated some varieties of liatris for their medicinal qualities. They used them to create diuretics, expectorants and analgesics. People even thought liatris balms, powders, teas and tonics would stimulate the vascular system, ease backaches and cure sore throats.
Modern herbalists add the fragrant leaves and roots to sachets, potpourris and insect repellants. They also use the plant as homeopathic remedies to relieve an array of maladies, including colic and kidney problems.
Cultivation and Companions
Liatris plants are drought-tolerant and require sunny sites and fertile, well-drained soil. The plants will tolerate a bit of shade and poor soils, but most won't tolerate wet feet. Though Liatris spicata, often called swamp blazing star, tolerates damp soils and is a great addition to rain gardens.
Amend soil with humus or compost to create good-draining sites, but don't plant liatris in areas where water is likely to pool. Plant corms 1 to 2 inches deep and about 8 inches apart. Space container-grown cultivars 15 to 20 inches apart. During the plants' first growing season, keep a regular watering schedule to encourage healthy roots.
Deadheading and harvesting flowering stems also promotes root growth and a second flush of flowers. For fresh bouquets, cut stems when one-third of the buds have opened. If you want to dry the stems, cut the stalks when all the flowers have opened.
Divide and Conquer
Deadhead fading blooms by cutting the stems back to the plants' basal leaves. Make new plants by allowing flowers to go to seed or by dividing overgrown clumps every 2 or 3 years.
Plants do best when you divide in spring, but you can also divide them in fall as long as transplants have enough time to develop roots before the ground freezes.
Liatris make a statement when you plant them in masses or arrange them as drifts trailing through prairie-style plantings. Place shorter varieties along walkways and at the base of birdbaths and arbors. Showcase liatris' airy, upright silhouettes by interplanting them with perennials and dwarf shrubs that boast rounded forms, such as stonecrop, perennial geraniums or spirea.
Create textural garden groupings by combining liatris with strappy-leafed daylilies, ornamental grasses, feathery yarrows and velvety lamb's ear. Pair the prairie natives with other natives that bloom around the same time, such as coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and goldenrod. The adaptable plants also partner well with cottage-garden favorites coreopsis, phlox, catmint and mallow.
It doesn't matter what planting companions you use, this easygoing plant is always a standout—truly a blazing star in any mid-summer garden.