Blazing Stars (also called Gayfeathers) of the Liatris genus have general characteristics of: Stem leaves narrow and lance shaped; the flower heads, typically numbering 5 to 60 (but 160+ on a few species), appear on a spike, each flowerhead containing a number of small tubular 5-lobed pink-purple florets. Local variations in species populations will be observed. Rootstocks are corms and rhizomes.
L. spicata can grow from 2 to 6 feet in height. The stems are erect and usually smooth except for some sparse whitish hair, particularly on the lower stem and in the inflorescence.
The leaves are both basal and stem. The lower leaves are narrowly lanceolate in shape and up to 3/4 inch wide and 10 inches long. The stem leaves are alternate and become more narrow and linear reducing in size up the stem. Leaves are weakly gland-dotted but without glandular hairs.
The floral array is a densely packed spike of stalkless flower heads.
Flowers: Individual flower heads are small, only 1/2 inch wide with 5 to 8 (variation 4-14) florets which have a pinkish purple corollas with funnelform throats, without hair on the inside. The 5 lobes of the corolla slightly reflex. Five stamens tightly surround the single style. These are not exserted from the throat when the floret opens but the long and deeply bifurcated style is. Around the outside of the flower head are the phyllaries in 4 to 5 series, ovate to oblong in shape, unequal in size. Tips are broadly rounded to obtuse. These are usually without hair but may have translucent margins. The tips do not reflex. Lower flower heads will have a visible linear green bract at the base, longer than the head.
Seed: Fertile flowers produce a dry seed (a cypsela), 4.5 to 6 mm long, that has bristly hair attached for wind dispersion. Seeds require 60 days of cold stratification to break dormancy.
Varieties: There are two recognized varieties - var. spicata and var. resinosa. The latter has phyllaries that are purplish to greenish with leaves reduced abruptly in size at mid-stem. The former has phyllaries that are usually greenish with gradual reduction in leaf length.
Habitat: Liatris spicata prefers full sun in well drained soil with wet to mesic moisture conditions. In the wild it will be found on bluffs, limestone outcrops and barrens. Long-tongued bees and butterflies will visit these plants. It grows from a globose to slightly elongated corm-like structure.
Names: The genus Liatris is an old name whose meaning has been lost. The species spicata, means 'spike bearing' and refers to the shape of the floral array. As you can see above, a number of common names have been attached to this plant. The Garden uses the same name as USDA whereas Flora of North America calls it Florist or Marsh Gayfeather. Wisconsin refers to it as Marsh Blazing Star. This is why scientific names are important. The author name for the plant classification, ‘Willd.’ is for Carl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812), German botanist, a founder of the study of the geographic distribution of plants. He was director and curator of the Botanic Garden of Berlin. In 1803 he updated the work of the first person to classify - '(L.)' which refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. Linnaeus originally called the plant Serratula spicata in 1753.
Comparisons: The heads are not stalked like L. pycnostachya, where they also occur in a dense spike. Flower head phyllaries are rounded unlike L. pycnostachya where they are pointed and tend to curve backward. L. spicata and L. pycnostachya are difficult to distinguish without close inspection. See also Dotted Blazing Star, L. punctata, where the leaves are shorter and thinner and the phyllaries are much different - larger, oblong-ovate and with marginal hair.
Above: The floral array and top of stem with its fine leaves. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: L. spicata will begin blooming in late July. 1st & 2nd photo - The flower head is a dense spike. The lack of flower bud stalks and the dense spike is similar to Prairie Blazing Star, L. pycnostachya. 3rd photo - The underside of the leaf - there are a few sparse hair on the midvein and this leaf is gland-dotted.
Below: Flower heads have 5 to 8 florets which have a pinkish purple corollas with funnelform throats. The style is long and deeply bifurcated. The narrow, smooth linear leaves, which become finer near the top of the stem.
Below: The basal leaves (bottom) compared to the upper stem leaves (top).
Below: Detail of the flower heads; 1st photo - note the rounded purplish phyllaries of var. resinosa. In the 2nd photo are the green phyllaries of var. spicata. These differ from the similar looking Prairie Blazing Star, L. pycnostachya where they are pointed with reflexed tips. Here the tips do not reflex.
Notes: Eloise Butler first recorded planting Dense Blazing Star in 1911 with plants obtained from Kelsey's Nursery on the East Coast and she planted more on May 1st 1912 - same source. In 1919 she got 12 from Horsford's Nursery in Charlotte, VT. More were added in 1921, '23, '26, '29, '30, and '31. Martha Crone planted also in 1936 from a source in Shakopee, MN and then added more in 1946, '51, '53, '54, and '56 in the development of the Upland Garden. She listed it on her 1951 Garden Census. This species is not native to Minnesota, but is native to SE Wisconsin and states eastward from the Mississippi river valley except New England. In Canada it is known in Ontario and Quebec. It is listed as a plant of "Special Concern" in Wisconsin. North America has 37 species of Liatris.
In Minnesota five species of Liatris are considered native and several others have been reported but have never been collected. The native five are L. aspera, Rough Blazing Star; L. cylindracea, Ontario Blazing Star; L. ligulistylis, Large-headed (or Rocky Mountain) Blazing Star; L. punctata, Dotted Blazing Star; L. pycnostachya, Prairie Blazing Star.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"