Monday, February 20, 2017

Gayfeathers and Blazing Stars

If you’re looking for pollinator-friendly prairie wildflowers you can’t beat the gayfeathers. Also called blazing stars, these butterfly magnets are known for their “feathery” pink to lavender (sometimes white) flower spikes that sit on stiff stems covered with slender, grass-like leaves. Their featheriness is often more pronounced in the fall after the flower-spikes transform into fuzzy white to light-grey seed heads that dramatically extend the ornamental benefits of gayfeathers well into cold weather.
Dotted Gayfeather - Liatris punctata

There are over 40 different species of gayfeather (genus Liatris) across the eastern two-thirds of North America including seven species native to Nebraska and the surrounding Great Plains. All gayfeathers help feed and shelter a wide variety of pollinators and other beneficial insects as well as several species of small birds. Butterflies attracted to blazing stars include monarchs, swallowtails, skippers, sulphurs, hairstreaks, fritillaries, painted ladies and red admirals among others. No pollinator garden is complete without one or more species of Liatris and here are six that deserve to be planted with abundance in our region.
Buckeye on Liatris
Monarch on Meadow Blazing Star

Rough Gayfeather (Liatris aspera) was relatively common in the tallgrass prairie of the central US including eastern Nebraska. Also called button snakeroot, the plant grows 2-3’ tall and is distinguished by its zigzag flower clusters that resemble small brussels-sprouts before they open in late summer. The species name "aspera" is Latin for "rough," which refers to the short stiff hairs on the central stem and the narrow basal leaves, which are very rough. 

Meadow Blazing Star (Liatris ligulistylis) is primarily native to the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains where it is also known as Rocky Mountain blazing star. It’s also native to very southeast Nebraska and parts of Missouri. Meadow blazing star is similar to rough gayfeather, but with more widely spaced flower bracts.

Dotted Gayfeather (Liatris punctata) is one of the most common gayfeathers across the central US and occurs in nearly every county in Nebraska. Named for the dot like bumps on its leaves, this species grows from a taproot that can reach 15’ deep giving it amazing drought tolerance. Dotted gayfeather is a shorter species often blooming on 6-10” stems in the western part of its range while reaching up to 2’ tall in the east.  The flowering period is late, typically from late summer to frost.  

Dotted Gayfeather in Kimball County

Thickspike Gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya) is a majestic species of the tallgrass prairie known for its spectacular spikes of tightly bunched lavender flowers growing atop 4-5’ tall stems. The plant is native to southeast Nebraska and goes by many common names including prairie blazing star, button snakeroot, cattail gayfeather and Kansas gayfeather. The name pycnostachya is from the Greek for "crowded" referring to the densely crowed flowers which begin blooming at the top and work their way down the stem.
Thickspike Gayfeather in Union Plaza, Lincoln

Scaly Blazing Star (Liatris squarrosa) is more of a southern plains and southeast US native but is also found in Nebraska’s Sandhills and northern tier counties. Named for its distinctive scaly and elongated flower bracts, this blazing star grows up to 2’ tall and blooms in late summer. Scaly blazing star is typically found on hot, sunny and barren soils making it a good choice for Xeriscape plantings and rock gardens.

Spike Gayfeather (Liatris spicata) is actually an eastern US native typically found in moist meadows and marshy areas. Also called dense blazing star, button snakewort, and marsh blazingstar, this plant is perhaps the most common gayfeather sold in garden centers, often under cultivar names like ‘Kobold’ and ‘Floristan Violet’. Similar in appearance to Liatris pycnostachya this species can grow 3-5’ tall and typically blooms in late summer and fall. Spike gayfeather is a good choice for rain gardens and other moist areas.

Justin Evertson

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