Monday, August 11, 2014

Late Bloomers

By Sage Passi

Liatris ablaze in early August in front of the Watershed District office.

In past issues we’ve given press periodically to several of those invasive bullies – wild parsnip, miscanthus, teasel and the formidable zombie weed, tansy but what about tipping our hat to some of our favorite late bloomers from the other side of the fence? What about our so-called friendly plants?

Several of my favorites – rough blazing star (Liatris aspera),prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) and meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylus) that grace the stage in August in our lakeshore and prairie buffers, dwell in rain gardens and line our own home garden paths deserve some time in the limelight too.

Monarchs lined up to feast on blazing star nectar.

They’ve become famous for attracting threatened monarchs who line up sometimes six to eight on their flower stems gathering precious nectar. Once abundant in native prairie landscapes, blazing stars have been reduced to fragmented populations due to the loss of prairie to agricultural fields and urbanization.

Blazing stars are unique and beautiful wildflowers. They are well-known for their colorful, feathery flower-heads which are densely clustered on stems covered with slender, grass-like leaves. This feather-like look is why the blazing star is commonly known as gayfeather. Their root system consists of corms, which occasionally form offsets near the mother plant. A corm is a short, vertical, swollen underground
plant stem that helps the plants survive winter or other adverse conditions such as summer drought and heat.

Rough or button blazing star is a common perennial of dry, sandy prairies. It prefers moderately moist or dry, well-drained upland soils. This species, along with other blazing stars, is typically found in high quality prairies. Many insects visit the flowers of Liatris aspera including honeybees, bumblebees, Little Carpenter bees, Miner bees, and Leaf-Cutting bees. Butterfly visitors include Monarchs, Painted Ladies, Black Swallowtails, Sulfurs, and more.

Left: Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) prefers well-drained soils.
Right: Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) prefer moist or wet prairies. 

The tiny purple flowers of the Liatris pycnostachya (prairie blazing star) are densely crowded into a tall spike that grows between six inches and a foot and half long. Prairie blazing star grows in wet or moist prairies and meadows. All the Liatris are known to have a variety of medicinal purposes. I’ve gathered plant lore for many years but I have to say my favorite stories come from the Meskwaki and Omaha tribes and their use of this plant. I learned that the flower heads of Liatris pycnostachya were mixed with shelled corn and were used to prepare horses for races by the Meskwaki. The Omaha tribe chewed its corm then blew the resulting paste into horses’ nostrils to increase their endurance. I don’t think that I will ever forget that story!

A favorite for rain gardens, meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylus) tends to grow in moist places such as wet prairies, swales and roadside ditches. It prefers light, sandy loam or loam soils. It’s a favorite for butterflies. Its species name ligulistylus means “tongue-like style.” 

Meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylus) like all the blazing stars is a favorite for monarchs.

Collect the seeds of Liatris when the heads begin to expand exposing the feathery fluff which turns a dingy tan as the attached nutlets begin to ripen. To grow your own plants, follow these directions for preparing the seeds for germination. A cold –moist stratification method is recommended. Mix seeds with equal amounts or more of damp sand, vermiculite, or other sterile media (moist—but not so wet that water will squeeze out of the mixture). Place the seed mixture in a labeled, sealed plastic bag and store in a refrigerator (33–38°F) for 60 days before plants are started indoors under lights. Plants started from seed will flower in their second year.

Then in August a couple years from now let those late bloomers draw both you and the monarchs to their spectacular purple blooms!

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