Monday, July 28, 2008

Liatris spicata: A Lavender Lovely

Liatris spicata, is for many (or at least should be!) a foundational staple plant for gardeners interested in midwestern prairie natives, and is often seen planted in with purple coneflowers (we have a couple such areas), but does best and shows off its most dramatic effect when massed together. The examples shown here are in the original bed I planted probably about 9 years ago, when we first purchased some 10-20 bulbs to plant in various areas of the garden. As I recall, I only planted 5 or 6 of them originally, and now they have completely taken over this small bed, that also once held a couple of Columbines (since deceased) and a 'Blue Butterfly' Delphinium (since disappeared). It should come as no surprise that given it's in the Asteraceae family, it has a penchant to proliferate profligately and fill in a small area within a few years. But Liatris is such a beautiful, wild looking flower, it's hard to begrudge them the space (this bed is probably about 2 ft by 3 ft). And, if you grow this, you already know what a magnet it is for Butterflies and Bumblebees, though the day these shots were taken, the bees were much more interested in the coneflower profusion out front, but have since been visiting this bed regularly.
This second shot reveals a bit more perspective with its immediate neighbors, the Peonies and our magnificent chain link fence ... And you can even get a long distance view of our back yard, with the veggie garden at the far end by our neighbor's driveway. It's easy to see how Liatris earned the common name of 'Gay Feather,' due to its profusion of feathery tendrils around the actual flowers, something the first shot in this series shows to great effect. As you can see, they start blooming from the top of the bloom stalk and work their way down as their bloom time progresses (which is usually 2-3 weeks of maximum effect for us). When these shots were taken (on July 17, 2008), they were just getting revved up, and though they have since declined a wee bit, they are still looking pretty as can be, despite being pounded down a few times by those recent heavy rains we've been having. (And today was no exception, with storms moving in from about 2:00 p.m. on, and continuing through the night.)
This final shot demonstrates quite nicely how the entire plants look when massed together, which has the function of not only giving them maximum "pop" but also helps to provide support for their immediate neighbors. When you examine them closely, you can really see why they are such a great prairie wildflower because they have adapted nicely to going vertical amidst a profusion of other tall plants such as coneflowers, mallows and rudbeckias in a wilder type setting. Note the tag along Cottonwood fluff that stopped by to visit temporarily....

As for cultivation, Liatris really doesn't ask for much other than a fairly good loamy soil to grow in, adequate moisture (we hardly ever water them, and only in the most extreme of dry periods) and full sun to part shade. Plants grown in the shade are less likely to put on much size (these get about 3-4 ft at their high point), or bloom quite as profusely, but it can still be done, if only to provide a nice bushy bit of foliage. This bed gets a very bright early eastern exposure in the morning, some midday sun and direct western sun in the late afternoon, and they appear to be liking their situation quite well. Of course, if you're starting them out the first year, they certainly will appreciate the extra water here and there to help them get a firm footing, but in successive years, they truly are able to be pretty much ignored ... that is, until Mid-July when they burst into their glory in rapid succession. Both bulbs and plants are widely available and either method of planting is easy enough to maintain, though I suspect planting good sized plants first would really give them a running head start.

I mentioned above that they spread pretty rapidly, and if the thought of too many invading your space worries you, all you have to do is deadhead them before they set on seed. You won't get another flush of blooms, but you will avoid getting many seedlings the following spring, if that poses a problem for you. We NEVER deadhead these, mostly because the Goldfinches love to feast on the seeds (they seem to have a thing for the Asteraceae), and we don't mind having too many around, because we can either give them away or spread them around to other garden areas. A hint though: when the seedlings come up, they look a lot like some kind of lush grass, but if you pull them, you'll quickly notice a small bulb at the base of the plant, a sure sign that it's not just some grass horning in on their space. (I discovered this quite by accident the second or third year, and quickly reversed my action to preserve them.) If you divide them, you can use them in other parts of the garden or pass them along to another admirer, and not have to worry at all that they won't replace themselves quickly the following year. What's not to like? Indeed, adore!

I've always been a bit curious about its common names ... I get the 'Gay Feather' appellation, but 'Blazing Star?' That to me sounds like something that would be red or orange, colors non-existent among Liatris species (as far as I know, they only come in lavender, deeper purple and white varieties). And as for 'Button Snakeroot' ... I have no clue where that comes from, so if anyone knows, please enlighten me in in the comments!

This weekend was another washout to me getting those last plants in, yet again. The heat and humidity (then rain) made it very uncomfortable to be outside, but once it cools down just a bit, it's only going to take me an hour or so to get the rest in and call it quits. Oh joy, and then I get to do weeding duties! LOL ... At least we haven't had to water the last couple of weeks, and these regular rains sure do seem odd for the height of July, not that we're complaining too much. But they have been knocking the corn down regularly, though lately it's just been righting itself a day or so later, so we have fewer worries about it ... and at this point it's about at the 5 ft point, so can tassels be far behind? As for the tomatoes, it's still the waiting game ... they're there, getting bigger and enjoying this recent blast of heat and humidity, but still green ... You'll know when the first tomato is harvested, because you'll see it lauded here first! Given how much behind the veggies are this year (due to the adverse spring planting conditions), I suspect the earliest will be the second or third week of August. I'm getting mighty impatient, nonetheless....


Mother Nature said...

Mine are just a memory now for they have already bloomed this year. I like the vertical interest they add to the garden.

Roses and Lilacs said...

Your liatris look wonderful. Mine are just finishing up. Wish they had a longer bloom time.

No tomatoes for me yet either. I don't know how much longer I can wait for my first BLT. The last week or so before they ripen is agony.

Gail said...


Very good read and chock full of good info...I didn't know the seedlings looked like grass..heavens have I been pulling them out! Mine are just finishing up...they are great looking flowers. I have always let them go to seed and now I can watch for seedlings and goldfinches feeding. I think they are stellar plants...the variety I grow are native to your part of the planet but they seem happy in my daylily meadow prairie garden! The sunny bed with the ever changing name!

Tennessee actually has a native blazing star..Liatris cylindracea. I don't have it in the garden but I am on the lookout for it...ivg...check it can see how like an aster the flowers are!

Isn't nature too 'funny'...we could use rain, the entire SE could use rain and you are swamped!


FARfetched said...

We got maters. ;-) And taters. Lordy do we have taters. Bushels, buckets, and boxes of 'em.

Nice lavender… Mrs. Fetched would probably likee. I have got to get her to read your blog.

Shady Gardener said...

IVG, this looks like a great post! Yea, liatris! :-) I'll be back to read it later. I just wanted you to know that I added a P.S. photo on my last post... with a photo of "Matrona" sedum that I think you'll like, too.

boran2 said...

Hi IVG. Finally, one that I know well. I've had liatris for years. A pretty plant, my only complaint is the brief period of bloom.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Howdy MN,
I'm not surprised yours are done now, as ours are good for maybe another week at best. I recall seeing Gail's a few weeks ago, so I suppose hers are done as well. Yep, the vertical interest is what they're all about, especially mixed in with other flowers, but they've conquered this little bed and pretty much elbowed everyone else, so we surrendered.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hi Marnie,
That short bloom time certainly is a small disadvantage, as others have tended to note today! But they do continue in their role as food source, so not such a bad trade off for the birds.

Ooh, I'm sooo with you on the tomato waiting game, and in a normal year we should have been getting the first of ours right about now. Since everything got in so late this year, it's to be expected. But still...!

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

You just need to see them once and you'll never mistake them again ... just picture the adult leaves seedling size and looking very green and lush... They usually don't travel much but they do spread by offshoots underground too.

I'll have to look up your native and see what that's all about. I wonder if IA has a true native species or if the spicata we bought was just nursery stock bulbs.

As for the rain, today's threat has really diminished at this point, and I saw on my wunderground page that there's some minor flooding going on in lower parts of town again. Still beastly hot here with dew points still in the 70's, ack.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

All right FAR, quit bragging! :-)
We have the Godzilla of a pumpkin patch that came up by the compost, yikes that's huge!

Every year we want to do a small plot of potatoes, but never get around to it, and this spring when we were motivated, we couldn't find sets anywhere.

Check one of those links in the post, but I'm pretty sure it would grow down your way, since the TN bloggers have in their gardens. Maybe you could plant another thug at the Manor?

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hey Shady,
I'll have to pop over in a bit and check that out. That purple one is making me seriously envious!

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hey B2,
As I mentioned above, I'm totally with you on the brief bloom time, but hey, that's what they do. :-)

Have yours spread a lot over the time you've had them, or do you sometimes divide them?

Shady Gardener said...

IVG, Back to the subject of Stonecrop Sedum. MMD said she had "Black Jack" and that it wasn't doing as well as "Purple Emperor." I looked BJ up and found that it's an offspring of "Matrona." Now Matrona may not have the deep color, but its Size is impressive!! You should get both! ;-) And maybe Black Jack, too! lol

boran2 said...

Hi IVG. Mine haven't spread very much. I've never divided them.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hi Shady,
I've never been really interested in the huge common stonecrops, so baby steps here, lol. I'll have to see what yours bloom like, and that may well sway me. I really fell in love w/Purple Emperor because regardless of the blooms, the foliage makes it really attractive. Does Matrona deepen in color if it gets more light? I've never seen PE for sale, but wonder if I've just passed it by inadvertently, but will be looking for it now.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hey B2,
That's kind of odd they haven't spread, but if they're doing well where they are, don't mess with success!

Annie in Austin said...


Liatris was a dependable plant that multiplied in Illinois so I've tried it here, planting it with other prairie plants like echinacea and phlox and gaura to make it feel at home. But my liatris grew and flowered once and then didn't reappear in spring. Yours looks so good I might try it again.

In my garden it's the Verbena bonariensis that makes rather ratty looking, faded purple seedheads for the finches.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hi Annie,
That does seem odd, but I wonder if it has something to do with your milder winters, but if coneflowers and phlox do well, that's perhaps not the cause... Ours are starting to look a bit ratty and many have been knocked down by the recent heavy rains I've been trying to direct down yours and Gail's way!

BTW, the corn started tasselling today. Yay! Still just a bunch of green tomatoes though, :-(

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

How embarrasing, my front garden is such a cliche with Liatris & Coneflowers growing together. My Liatris don't live very long, I don't know why. Instead, I have to dig up the volunteers and move them to replace their vanished parents. Mine also get very tall & lean way over across the path. This year I finally got my act together & staked them.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

That's not cliché, that's a classic combo! We have some mixed elsewhere with them as well, and they look great together, I think.

That's odd yours die off so quickly, but I wondered if they are they planted alone or with others? We've found that massing them seems to keep loss down --or else it's because there are so many constantly coming on, we don't notice...Yeah, ours are more than leaning right now and are prostrate due to the rains. Meh, they're done anyway for now and I can just cut them back.

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