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Liatris
Spring shows what God can do with a drab and dirty world...Virgil A. Kraft

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Liatris, also known as Blazing Star or Gayfeather, is a stately, colorful addition to the garden that is so useful that I am amazed it is not applied more widely in home gardens.  This is a plant that makes you look like you know what you are doing in the garden whether you are a raw beginner or a seasoned professional.  It thrives in the heat, and sends up tall (up to 4 foot) feathery stalks of bright pink-purple or white flowers from attractive grassy tufts of foliage in mid summer.  Unless you buy seed from a specialty garden supplier, the Liatris you buy retail will be Liatris Spicata, by far the most commonly grown Liatris and the one pictured here.

Liatris is a veritable beneficial insect magnet, attracting among others, Monarch and Swallowtail butterflies, as is evident  in the picture below from my own garden of a Tiger Swallowtail on a newly blooming Liatris stem. Liatris grows easily from corms that can be bought in virtually any garden store, and it is as close to fail-proof as one can get when planted in a proper position with good drainage and full or near full sun. It is hardy to zone 3 and is bothered by few pests or diseases.  Be careful, however, to place it where it does not sit in standing water during winter, as this is the number one cause of failed Liatris plantings. 

Liatris is most easily started from corms planted any time from early spring to mid summer for blooms the same season, or in fall for blooms the next season.  Plants started from corms will produce flowers in the first year, whereas seed-started plants may take up to 2 years to produce flowers.  Liatris seeds are tiny and should be broadcast into the soil, tamped down, and only very lightly covered with soil in the fall, as seeds require a period of cold to germinate. Be aware that Liatris from seed takes a lot of time and patience, and planting from corms is a much easier way for the average gardener.  Leaf cuttings can also be taken from established Liatris plants, but again, this is a time-consuming project as although the leaves root readily, they don't produce corms for a long time, and the final flowers are generally shorter than their parent plant in the end. 

Liatris is unusual in that the flowers bloom from the top down rather than the bottom up, as is common with most upright spiked flowers.  This makes them a great cut flower, because as the old flowers at the top begin to look spent, they can just be snipped off and the stalk will continue putting out fresh blooms farther down the stem.  With the sturdy stalks and bright color, Liatris is one of the best plants you can grow for a cut flower garden. 

Mistakes are few with Liatris, even for beginners, but there are a few pitfalls to avoid at planting time.  Planting too deep will result in no plants at all, which I can attest to from raw experience.  My first planting of a bag of 30 Liatris corms resulted in about 5 blooming plants because I didn't read the directions and then compounded the problem by laying heavy mulch on top. Bury the corms no more than 2 inches below the soil line and less if you are using mulch.  Sometimes it is hard to tell which end is up on Liatris corms, but if you look carefully, you can see little stringy roots on one end, signifying the bottom of the corm.  Corms planted upside down will result in no plant.  Another mistake noted above, but which can't be stressed too much is planting in an area that stays waterlogged in winter.  This will result in the corms rotting in place and no plants. Another pitfall to consider is how much sun the garden spot receives when placing Liatris plants.  It is a fine line indeed between just enough sun and not enough, which will result in sickly blooms or no blooms at all, so if possible, err on the side of too much sun rather than too little.  Lastly, some people complain that they have to stake their Liatris blooms to keep them from flopping over.  Liatris does not need extremely rich soil, and may not be as sturdy if pampered too much.  I personally don't have that problem and have never once seen a Liatris in full bloom fall over in the wind in my garden, but do be aware that staking may conceivably be necessary on occasion. 

So that's it.  If you want a summer-blooming perennial that requires little care and provides strong upright color, Liatris is the plant for you.  As always, for longer bloom time, stagger the plantings at 2 week intervals from spring to mid summer, and you will have a garden to remember this year no matter what else goes wrong.  . 



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