How to Grow and Care for Shooting Star

Shooting star plant with lavender v-shaped flowers closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Shooting star is a native perennial wildflower, a member of the Primula family. It forms basal clumps of lance-shaped leaves, from which 20-inch flowers stalks emerge in spring, covered with drooping clusters of 1-inch white, pink, or purple flowers. Normally planted in spring from potted nursery plants, shooting star has a slow growth rate and does not spread aggressively. It normally will flower in its first year when planted from nursery starts, but plants started from seeds may require four or five years to mature into flowering plants.

Native to the American prairie, this delicate, nodding, spring wildflower once was found growing abundantly throughout open, moist woods and rocky slopes. Although it has suffered declines in its natural habitats, the native plant gardening trend means that the shooting star is now widely available in cultivation, ready to grace your garden with a piece of living history.

Common Name Shooting star, eastern shooting star, prairie pointers
Botanical Name Dodecatheon meadia or Primula meadia
Family Primulaceae
Plant Type Herbaceous, perennial
Mature Size 9–20 in. tall, 9–12 in. wide
Sun Exposure Partial
Soil Type Rocky or sandy loam
Soil pH Slightly acidic (6.0 to 6.8)
Bloom Time Late spring
Flower Color White, pink, purple
Hardiness Zones 4–8 (USDA)
Native Area Central and Eastern North America

Shooting Star Care

The shooting star plant is a spring ephemeral, which means that it's in its glory in the spring, but it drops off the radar after that. In the summer plants go dormant, dying back and eventually returning all energy back into the roots. Don't worry, this perennial will reappear in the spring when mild temperatures and moist soil tell the plants to get growing again.

Shooting star plant with white and light pink flowers clustered on top of stems

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Shooting star plant with tiny white and light pink flowers clustered on stems near mulch path

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Shooting star plant with pink vertical flowers closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Nodding Onion
 weisschr / Getty Images

Light

A site with partial sun is ideal for shooting star plants. Because the plants are dormant in the summer, you can plant them under the high canopy of deciduous trees, which provides dappled light in the spring before leafing out to shade the resting phase of the plants. In cooler regions this plant will tolerate full sun; in warmer regions, more shade is preferred.

Soil

Shooting star plants grow and colonize areas of well-draining or sandy loam, although they will tolerate some clay soils. Colonization is generally slow with additional plants taking several years to appear. The plants do well in the leaf mold that accumulates under mature trees.

Water

Shooting star has average water needs, thriving with about 1 inch of water per week during the active flowering period. Less water is needed in the heat of summer. Summer dormancy is an adaptation that makes shooting star drought tolerant.

Temperature and Humidity

Shooting star plants thrive in the mild spring temperatures and gentle rains of April through June. They experience dormancy as summer heats up, but the basal foliage clumps may return as the weather cools in fall. This plant tolerates both arid and humid atmospheric conditions, provided soil moisture is favorable.

Fertilizer

Shooting star plants don't need supplemental fertilizer. They are genetically inclined to thrive in native soils, unenriched by additional nitrogen. If your soil is especially poor, you can side-dress the plants with a shovelful of compost when they are actively growing.

Types of Shooting Star

The pure species plant is common in garden cultivation, but there is a white-flowered form (P. meadia f. album) that is also popular. There are also several cultivars to choose from:

  • 'Goliath' is bred to have larger flowers on taller stalks.
  • 'Aphrodite' has dark pink flowers that are nearly twice the size of the species plant.
  • 'Queen Victoria' has large, light pin flowers with yellow bands at the base.

Variations within the shooting star species occur naturally, and flowers may range in color from white to lavender to dark pink without any intervention from the gardener. The flowers tend to be whiter in the southern part of the hardiness range, taking darker pink or purple hues in the north.

Propagating Shooting Star

You can increase your shooting star flowerbed by dividing the plants in the fall. Here's how to do it:

  1. Use a sharp shovel to dig up the plant's fibrous root clump from the ground.
  2. Carefully divide the root ball into four or more pieces, using a shovel or trowel. Each piece should include a section of the plant crown.
  3. Immediately replant the pieces, spacing the pieces no closer than 1 foot apart.

As plants grow established, they may produce rosette-shaped offsets around the base of the mother plant. These offsets can be carefully dug up to propagate new plants.

How to Grow Shooting Star From Seed

This is a difficult plant to propagate from seeds, as the tiny seeds require cold stratification in order to germinate. It can take seedlings four to five years to develop into flowering plants. If you want to try it, collect the very fine seed of shooting star plants in July from spent flowers. In late winter, place the seeds in a sandwich bag full of moist peat mixed with vermiculite and place them in the refrigerator for one month. After your last frost, spread the mixture over your chosen outdoor area. As an alternative to stratification, plant outdoors in the fall. Thin seedlings to 1 plant per square foot after germination occurs.

Overwintering

As a native wildflower, shooting star is a tough plant that survives nicely without any special winter preparation. Dead flower stalks can be clipped off, but allowing them to remain will encourage some self-seeding and the gradual spread of the colony.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Shooting star plants are seldom bothered by pests. In a world where our pollinators face a fragile future, the shooting star serves as an important source of pollen for bumblebees—though not honeybees, since these are nectarless flowers. Because the pollen of the shooting star is trapped in a narrow tubular structure in the flowers, bumblebees must vibrate their bodies to shake the pollen loose. Without this special behavior that allows pollination to occur, the Dodecatheon genus would die out. Protect bees by shielding your shooting star plants from pesticides.

The only serious threat to this plant is excessively dense, wet soil, which can cause root rot.

How to Get Shooting Star to Bloom

Like most native wildflowers, shooting star rarely needs encouragement to produce its late spring flowers. Planting them in well-draining soil in a partial sun location generally guarantees flowering. Avoid the temptation to feed these plants, however, as nitrogen fertilizers can work against you, prompting foliage growth at the expense of flowers. Shooting star may also be reluctant to bloom in locations that are too shady or too wet.

Common Problems With Shooting Star

Shooting star is a largely trouble-free plant once established, with only a couple of common complaints:

Plant Dies in Summer

When they first grow shooting star, gardeners are sometimes disappointed to find that the plant appears to die as summer heat sets in. This is a natural behavior for many wildflowers, a mechanism to survive by going dormant. The basal growth may begin to return as the weather cools in fall, but will almost surely return the following spring. You may want to mark the location of the plant with a small stake to avoid accidentally digging it up after it goes dormant.

Plant Did Not Return in Spring

Though it's rare for a shooting star plant to succumb to winter, it doesn't like wet winter conditions. If planted in a low-lying area or in dense, clay soil, shooting star may die from root rot if placed in a spot that remains too wet over the winter.

FAQ
  • How should I use shooting star in the landscape?

    Shooting star is a somewhat understated plant that works well in native wildflower gardens, rock gardens, woodland gardens, and other naturalized areas. It is best placed among plants that will develop later to cover up the dormant summer foliage. Shooting star will also grow up through some ground covers, such as Vinca minor.

  • What's the difference between shooting star and nodding onion?

    Both the shooting star and the nodding onion (Allium cernuum) have pink nodding flowers. Nodding onion plants are also native wildflowers that grow in zones 4 to 8 in full to partial sun and sandy loam. But the nodding onion blooms later than the shooting star—usually from June to August. The foliage of the nodding onion is taller and more narrow than the shooting star, and it also has a distinct onion smell when crushed. Plant some nodding onion flowers as companions to your shooting star plants to continue the pink blossom show in your wildflower garden.

  • How long does shooting star live?

    Once well established, shooting star is known as a long-lived perennial, with a lifespan that is sometimes measured in decades. The plant will spread fairly slowly by producing rosette offshoots, gradually producing a manageable colony.

  • Is shooting star endangered?

    Shooting star is listed as an endangered plant in some regions, probably due to pesticide damage to populations of bumblebees and other pollinators responsible for fertilizing the flowers. Gardeners who grow shooting star and other native plants will want to avoid the use of chemicals. If you find these plants in native woodland or meadow areas, resist the temptation to dig up plants or pick the flowers.