One of the highlights of the July/August garden is the unusual bloom of Liatris, known as both Gayfeather and Blazing Star. Liatris spikes are composed of a series of fuzzy disks or buttons that open from the top down. The flowers are quite attractive to bees and butterflies.
The best known species is Liatris spicata (Spike Gayfeather), native to the eastern half of the United States and hardy in zones 3-9. This is probably the best species for the sunny perennial garden because it is quite happy in fertile, well-drained soils and it is somewhat drought tolerant. From the basal clump arise stems with leaves that become progressively shorter until the very top of the stalk bursts into bloom. This inflorescence can be six to fifteen inches long depending on the cultivar. It is an excellent cut flower.
L.‘Kobold’ has lavender-pink blooms, is the shortest cultivar at 2-2 1/2’, and stays in flower for the month of July. The deadheads are attractive and lend interest to the garden through the rest of the summer and into the fall. If not deadheaded, it will seed. This can be an asset or a liability depending on your plan for the garden. Its stems are strong and need no support. Other useful cultivars, ‘Floristan White’ and ‘Floristan Violet’, are three feet tall. If you need a shorter plant, try L.microcephala (Small-Headed Blazing Star) which only grows 18-24” tall but has the same rosy-purple spikes, just shorter. It is, however, hardy only in zones 6-9.
To maximize the appearance of Liatris spicata in the garden, try combining it with other native perennials such as one of the Echinacea (Coneflower) cultivars or Asclepias tuberosa and a native ornamental grass like Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem). Using this combination, you would be capitalizing on textural contrasts of both foliage and bloom type as well as creating an ecosystem (dry sun) vignette.
Liatris pychnostachaya (Kansas Gayfeather), native to moist soils, is just as hardy as L.spicata and grows three to five feet tall. It is probably best grown in meadow or prairie gardens where there will also be tall grasses like Panicum virgatum (Switch Grass) that will support it. Liatris is an excellent alternative to Lythrum (Purple Loosestrife) which is now considered an invasive plant.