Blazing Stars (also called Gayfeathers) of the Liatris genus have general characteristics of: Stem leaves narrow and lance shaped; the flower heads, typically numbering 5 to 60 (but 160+ on a few species), appear on a spike, each flowerhead containing a number of small tubular 5-lobed pink-purple florets. Local variations in species populations will be observed. Rootstocks are corms and rhizomes.
L. scariosa grows on erect stems from 1 to 5 feet in height. Stems have fine ridges and usually have some fine hair particularly in the upper part. Stem color is greenish below shading to reddish in the upper parts.
Leaves are both basal and stem. Leaves have a long elliptic to lanceolate shape, usually without hair and are widest just above the middle. The basal leaves are longest, up to 10 inches long and 1-1/2 inches wide. Stem leaves reduce in size gradually (the usual case) abruptly or sometimes not at all, but in any case, they are numerous but not densely packed on the stem. Middle stem leaves average 4-1/2 inches long and 3/8 inch wide, while the upper stem leaves will average 2-1/2 inches by 1/4 inch.
The floral array is a spike of button shaped, 3/4 to 1 inch long flower heads, longer than wide but not more than 1 1/2 times as long as wide, with a noticeable ascending stalk up to 2 inches long, the stalk with small leafy bracts; heads not densely packed but a little separated. A stem can have 3 to 60 heads.
Flower heads hold 19 to 80 florets (var. novae-angliae has 35 to 60) which have a pinkish purple corollas with funnelform throats, usually with hair on the inside and the 5 corolla lobes spread outward. The stamens are not exserted but the style is long and deeply bifurcated and because of the number of florets, the styles give a feathery appearance. The phyllaries of the flower head are in 4 to 5 series, oblong-obovate to broadly obovate, unequal in size. Tips are broadly rounded and spreading, but not recurved nor tightly appressed. These are usually without hair but may have translucent margins. These are green with some shading to purple during flowering.
Seed: Fertile flowers produce an obconic dry ribbed seed, (a cypsela) 4.5 to 6 mm long, that has bristly hair attached for wind dispersion. Seeds require 60 days of cold stratification for germination.
Varieties: There are three varieties recognized. Details at the bottom of the page.
Habitat: Liatris scariosa prefers full sun in well drained soil with dry to moderate moisture conditions. It is tolerant of some poorer soils but is intolerant of wet soil in the winter. Long-tongued bees and butterflies will visit these plants. It grows from a sub-globose corm-like structure.
Names: An older scientific name for this species is Liatris borealis. The genus Liatris is an old name whose meaning has been lost. The species scariosa, means 'thin and dry'. As you can see above, a number of common names have been attached to this plant. The Garden uses the same name as some of the Eastern States whereas Flora of North America calls it Northern Gayfeather. USDA terms it New England Blazing Star - which reflects this particular variety. This is why scientific names are important. The author name for the plant classification for this species, ‘Willd.’ is for Carl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812), German botanist, a founder of the study of the geographic distribution of plants. He was director and curator of the Botanic Garden of Berlin. He amended the earlier work done by 'L.', which refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. The author name of the classification of the variety - ‘Lunell’ is for Joel Lunell, (1851-1920) Swedish-American botanist, whose herbarium collection was donated to the University of Minnesota.
Comparisons: The flower heads of the floral array separate this species from many others. Rough Blazing Star, L. aspera can be similar. Both species have similar shape heads and both can have stem hair. L. aspera however, has up to 35 florets in the flower head whereas L. scariosa usually has that as a minimum although some plants may have as few as 19; also the middle phyllaries of L. aspera have irregularly cut tips. Large-headed Blazing Star is the most likely candidate to be what Eloise Butler collected (see below). It has 4 to 20 flower heads on stalks, stems have hair and the floret throats do not have hair.
Above: The floral array.
Below: The flower heads have a button shape before the florets open and the head elongates. Flower stalk lenght is variable by variety.
Below: 1st photo - The small 5-part flowers just beginning to open on this flower head. 2nd photo - The phyllaries of the flower head elongate as the florets open - note they are not tightly appressed nor recurved.
Below: 1st photo - The phyllaries of the flower head elongate as the florets open - note they are not tightly appressed nor recurved. 2nd photo - Stems have very hair and a more reddish color near the top, green below. 3rd photo - The underside of the leaves of var. nieuwlandii have fine hair and are gland-dotted. Var. novae-angliae is usually not gland-dotted.
Below: Leaves are similar in shape, wider just above the middle, but lower base leaves (bottom) are much longer than the upper stem leaves (top).
Below: 1st photo - Leaves are numerous but not densely packed on the stem. 2nd photo - The root consists of a sub-globose corm-like structure with long fibrous roots.
Below:Seed heads of late September and seeds, which are obconic (narrow inverted pyramid) with ridges and with bristly pappus attached for wind dispersion.
Notes: This variety is not native to Minnesota. As the common name implies it is native to the New England States and south as far as Pennsylvania and New Jersey. However, in 1908, '10, '13, '14, '17 and '18 Eloise Butler recorded planting this species, obtained from her foraging area at what is now the Minnehaha Park area of Minneapolis; in 1919 plants from Columbia Heights; in 1918 and '20 many plants from Fort Snelling. She noted it was L. scariosa, but as there are no DNR or U of M Herbarium records of this plant being collected in MN she may have misidentified it. The closest one of the varieties comes to Minnesota is var. nieuwlandii in eastern Wisconsin. So that remains a mystery. What she may have actually collected was Liatris ligulistylis which is native to our area and similar looking. However, on April 30, 1912, she recorded planting specimens obtained from Horsford's Nursery, Charlotte VT. Later, Martha Crone notes planting its seeds in 1944 and plants in 1945, but then it does not appear on the Garden Census of 1951 or 1986 but is present on the 2009 Census.
In Minnesota five species of Liatris are considered native and several others have been reported but have never been collected. The native five are L. aspera, Rough Blazing Star; L. cylindracea, Ontario Blazing Star; L. ligulistylis, Large-headed (or Rocky Mountain) Blazing Star; L. punctata, Dotted Blazing Star; L. pycnostachya, Prairie Blazing Star.
Varieties: There are three accepted varieties of this species, first separated by how many leafy bracts are near the flower heads: var. scariosa has 8 to 20 bracts with head florets numbering 20 to 40. The next two varieties have 20 to 85 leafy bracts near the flower heads and florets number 30 to 80. This group separates into var. nieuwlandii where the lower stem leaves are over one inch wide and gland dotted and var. novae-angliae where the lower stem leaves are usually less than 0.8 inch wide and not gland dotted.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"