Liatris flowers may not offer the gardener any fragrance, but they will satisfy three of your other senses: the purple and lavender blooms provide a visual exclamation point in the garden; your ears will be buzzing with the sound of happy bees, and your fingers won’t be able to resist rifling through the fuzzy late summer blooms. Move over fussy roses and diva dahlias, because the liatris thrives on neglect.
The genus Liatris belongs to the giant plant family Asteraceae, also known as Compositae. What this means to gardeners is that a liatris blossom is actually a cluster of many little flowers that appear to be one flower. Pollinators love this! Also known as blazing star and gayfeather, liatris plants bloom from late summer into fall in full sun gardens. The purple, rose, or white flowers of liatris plants look almost like feather boas held erect on several spikes per plant. The leaves are narrow and inconspicuous. Depending on the variety, liatris plants can grow from one to six feet tall in USDA growing zones 3-9, but most commercially available types average three feet.
Although liatris plant materials are sometimes marketed as bulbs, they are technically corms, and it’s hard to believe that any life can emerge from these woody little nuggets in a bag. However, these corms, which are structurally swollen dormant stem parts, will send up shoots followed by flowers approximately three months after a spring planting. As with all bulbous types of plants, the largest corms will produce the most impressive flowers, and you should look for corms that are at least three inches in diameter.
Choose a site with full sun and any level of soil fertility for liatris corms, although sharp drainage is essential to prevent rot. Liatris plants prefer a slightly acid to neutral soil pH. Plant the corms an inch beneath the soil, and water thoroughly. The corms need no additional irrigation before the plants emerge.
For gardeners seeking to plant a large meadow or estate-sized garden, growing liatris from seed is a viable way to save money on a sizable planting. Liatris seeds take about a month to germinate, and the cold moist weather of early spring encourages germination. Rather than trying to fuss over seed starting indoors, sow the seeds outdoors in the late fall. Mother Nature will take care of the temperature and moisture conditions. Plants grown from seed will not bloom until the second year, but you can plant a small border of sun-loving annuals like cleome to disguise your liatris nursery until it comes to fruition.
Liatris is not a heavy feeder, but if the soil fertility is poor you can apply a balanced flower fertilizer once a year, in the spring, when active growth begins. Liatris is a drought tolerant plant, and after your spring rains trigger growth your established plants will tolerate dry spells. One inch of water a week during the hottest months will prevent stunted flowers and leaf scorch. Apply water to the base of the plants, or use drip irrigation, to avoid spreading fungal diseases.
It’s fun to get new plants for nothing by propagating them, and this is easy to do with liatris corms. Dig the plants late in the fall after the first freeze has killed the stems, and you will notice tiny corms, called cormels, clinging to the “mother corm.” Pick off the cormels, gently wipe away the soil, and store them in a cool shed or garage until spring planting time.
As a native North American flower, liatris flowers are at home in wildflower meadow plantings and cottage gardens, where they will delight butterflies. Their hardiness and low maintenance also make them a welcome addition to the rock garden, where they will mingle with dianthus, penstemon, snow-in-summer, or creeping baby's breath.
Liatris flowers are popular as cut flowers, providing textural and vertical interest to casual vase arrangements as well as summer wedding bouquets. Crafters will appreciate adding dried liatris to their wreaths and garlands: Harvest the flowers at the peak of blooming, strip away the stems and leaves, and hang the flowers upside down in a dry room.
Out of approximately 40 naturally occurring species of liatris, the three commonly available species include spicata, aspera, and pycostachya types. Within these species are several desirable named cultivars:
- Dotted blazing star: Purple blooms endure from August til frost
- Floristan white: Three-foot white flowers in July; long blooming time
- Kobold: A compact, late July bloomer; 18 inches tall with bright rose blooms
- Rough blazing star: Six-foot flowers may require support
- September glory: Blooms from August to September with four-foot purple spikes