Liatris spicata is one of my favorite perennials in my front yard garden. Commonly referred to as Dense Blazing Star, Blazing Star, and Gayfeather, my appreciation for this plant native to parts of North America, is well documented. Stems surrounded by vibrant, grass-like green foliage shoot up and form long tips covered in buds. Eventually, feathery, pinkish-purple flowers emerge, attracting bees and other pollinators. Then, as the flowers dry, they look like brown, fuzzy bottle brushes. That’s one of the reasons Liatris is high on my list: four-season interest. In this article, I’m going to share tips for planting Liatris, why I consider it to be a perfect perennial, and what not to do with it in the fall.
Part of the Asteraceae family, Liatris have become popular prairie plants in native plant gardens. Add these wildflowers to a border or meadow planting. If you like to create summer bouquets, plant them in a cutting garden among black-eyed Susans, echinacea, and coreopsis. They also make great cottage garden plants, because of their whimsical look, adding vertical interest and color.
Why grow Liatris?
It may be a bit bold to call this a perfect perennial, but in my opinion, Liatris checks a lot of boxes:
- Pollinator magnet: It attracts bees, butterflies, and birds!
- Year-round interest, including in the winter garden
- The dried flower heads provide seeds for birds to eat
- Drought and heat tolerant
- Interesting flowers, great for cut flower arrangements
- Deer resistant
- Grows well in average to poor soils
Native to prairie areas of North America, Liatris is a hardy, herbaceous perennial. It will survive in low growing zones, with winter conditions between -40°F and -30°F (-40°C to -30°C). And in the summer heat it thrives in dry conditions.
There are some nativars you may see at the garden center, such as ‘Kobold’. Flower color varies among these different varieties, from white to a lighter pink. Nativars are cultivated plants that are bred from native species of plants.
Where to plant Liatris
Choose an area of the garden that gets full sun and has good drainage. A bit of dappled shade is okay. Liatris doesn’t mind average soil. In fact, I would say my plants have thrived despite the dry front garden with its poorer soil.
Plants can grow anywhere from two to six feet tall, and their diameter can spread outwards by one to two feet as they naturalize. Once you’ve chosen a planting site, leave a bit of space (about a foot) between plants for them to spread.
Liatris corms are sold by various bulb companies and are usually delivered in the early spring. They may even be listed as bulbs. Plant them once the soil thaws. Corms should bloom in their first year. It takes about 70 to 90 days to bloom, around mid to late summer. Follow the package directions for planting tips.
It is possible to grow Liatris from seed, but it takes about two years for the plants to flower.
Liatris is most commonly sold as an established plant at garden centers, ready to be dug in to a garden. My solitary clump of Liatris that I purchased a few years ago as a sizable perennial (it was in bloom when I bought it!) has expanded into a nice little patch over the years.
Dig a hole deeper than the depth of its pot. When planting, you want the base of the plants to be level with the soil after you cover the roots. I always amend the hole with compost. Once you’ve nestled your plant into the hole, fill it in with the soil you dug out mixed with a bit of compost, being sure to fill in all the spaces. Water your Liatris plant thoroughly. And water regularly until it’s become established. It may be drought tolerant, but it needs some time to adapt to its new home. Once it takes hold, it has a strong root system.
Does Liatris spread?
I know I call it a perfect plant, but there is one little aspect worth noting that I don’t think tarnishes its reputation in the least. Liatris does spread. However, it appears on various “Grow Me Instead” lists as a non-invasive alternative to various invasive species.
I’m very happy that my liatris has naturalized in my garden over time. It’s grown into more natural-looking drifts of plants, rather than one deliberately planted clump. If the clumps get too heavy, you can transplant young plants to space them out and provide good air circulation. This also helps to prevent diseases, like powdery mildew, leaf spot, and rust. Liatris are pretty untroubled by pests.
What should you do with Liatris in the fall and winter?
One thing that I think is imperative to note is that you leave your liatris in the garden over the fall and winter. In the fall, the foliage changes to a lovely, deep red color. And as the blooms fade, they form brown fuzzy-looking seed heads that look like bottle brushes.
Not only do the bottle brushes provide both late fall and winter interest, they also feed the birds. I’ve seen goldfinches and chickadees land on the seed heads to feast, even when I’ve been out in the garden.
The plants also provide native habitat. In the spring, I’ve found an empty praying mantis egg case, clinging to the side of a stem. So it’s important to leave the plants be until the weather warms up. Once the new growth starts to emerge, the old flower stalks easily just snap away.