Liatris is an exceptional perennial for Colorado in that it is both tough and beautiful. Its tall, slender flower stalks are eye-catching and seem to remind us to “Stand up straight and walk with God!”
Native Americans first utilized this plant as a decoction for backache, limb pains, as a diuretic, expectorant and as heart medicine. Today the leaves and root are used to treat many illnesses including sore throats and diseases of the kidney. They are also used in potpourri, insect repellant, have antibacterial and antidiuretic properties, and possibly anti-cancer properties, due mainly to the presence of Coumarin. Coumarin has an anti-clotting effect on the blood, and ingestion may prevent clotting.
Liatris grows naturally in pine forests, grasslands, and on the prairie. It is native to Colorado and can be found from Northern Mexico through central United States and throughout central Canada. Liatris punctate is recorded on the Colorado State University “Native Herbaceous Perennials for Colorado Landscapes” list. Other names for Liatris include Gay Feather, Blazing Star/s, Snakeroot and Colic Root.
Liatris is in the family Asteraceae. Individual flowers have no rays like the typical daisy flower in this group. They have fluffy disk flowers that somewhat resemble blazing stars. The stalk produces tall spikes of bright purple flowers that might more closely resemble tiny bottlebrushes. Depending on the species, the clump-forming plant arises from a corm, rhizome or elongated root crown. The small flowers open from the top to bottom on the spikes, unlike most plants whose flowers open from the bottom upward as the spike develops. Depending on the species or variety and environmental conditions, the flower spike will be 1 to 5 feet tall. It generally stays very upright and needs no staking, unless grown in very rich, moist soil which will cause it to fall over. Its leaves are linear, rigid, medium green and have a grass-like appearance.
Liatris is a valuable addition to the perennial garden as a vertical contrast to mounded or broad-leaved plants. The purple flowers contrast nicely with yellow-flowered plants such as coreopsis and pink flowering plants such as poppy mallow. It also combines well with prairie grasses and silver foliage plants such as lamb’s ear. It looks exceptional when grouped together in large informal settings. In a formal garden it works well individually.
Plant Liatris in full sun and well-drained soil, spacing the plants 12-15 inches apart. It will tolerate some light shade and also tolerates poor soils. Container-grown plants are best planted in early spring but can also be planted in early fall. Water regularly during the first growing season to establish a strong root system. Once established, Liatris is fairly drought tolerant. Good drainage and aeration will enable the plant to survive wet winters. Plants will rot if the soil is too moist and they are planted too closely.
The flowers are attractive to butterflies, bees, and other insects. They also make great cut flowers, both fresh and dried. For dried flowers, harvest the spikes when one-half to two-thirds of the flowers are open. They can be air-dried (by hanging upside down in a protected spot for about 3 weeks) or by using a desiccant (such as silica-gel or sand) which often preserves blossom color better.
Liatris does not have any significant insect problems but is subject to several diseases, including stem rot, powdery mildew, and wilt. Spacing plants properly to allow for sufficient sunlight and air circulation will help minimize disease problems.
Liatris can easily be grown from seed. Start indoors or sow directly in the garden in early spring. Seeds should germinate in 20-45 days. Seed germination is improved after a pretreatment of 4 to 6 weeks of cold moist stratification or when planted outside in the fall or early winter. Plants generally will not bloom until their second year. To divide, split large clumps in the spring just as the leaves are emerging. Separate the corms or cut the tuberous roots with a sharp knife, keeping at least one “eye” on each division.
August is here along with the wonderful blooms of the Liatris. Let us stand up straight and give thanks to God!
(Kerry Peetz is a master gardener and member of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs.)