Blazing star (Liatris) is one of those native plants that is loved by everybody and everything. It is a runway model and a superfood for wildlife. People love the colorful flowers adorning its slender stalks and the wildlife it attracts.
Monarch butterfly programs like Monarch Watch and Milkweeds for Monarchs promote blazing star as a vital source of food for King Billy butterflies, otherwise known as monarchs. It is highly attractive to monarchs who seek flower nectar to fuel their migration to Mexico
Snack for all species
Native Americans called blazing star "crow root," because crows dug and ate the roots in fall. Staff at the Missouri Department of Conservation Discovery Center in Kansas City confirmed this years ago, when they watched a flock of crows uproot and eat several plants. Blazing star is also known as gayfeather.
Prairie blazing star
The wavy-lined emerald moth has a taste for blazing star, too. It is stealthy in its approach, removing the pink flower petals and sticking them all over its caterpillar body. Once the camouflage is in place, the caterpillars crawl around undetected as they devour flower after flower. Even when the pink petals fade to tan, the caterpillars remain hidden in faded flowers while they continue to feed.
Fortunately, blazing stars survive the wavy-lined emerald moth. But not so when voles come round.
Voles are tiny rodents that tunnel through soil and feed on plant roots, especially blazing star. I once planted over a hundred rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), only to see each one disappear in a winter feeding frenzy. I’ve seen this happen with Eastern blazing star (L. scariosa) outside my office window, with prairie blazing star (L. pycnostacya) by the thousand in Crawfish Flat at Shaw Nature Reserve, and with marsh blazing star (L. spicata) in too many gardens to recall. Blazing stars are irresistible to a vole. The only thing that slows down voles is steel and concrete. Sidewalks and raised planting beds exclude voles, and so do large containers with wire mesh covering the drain hole.
Trying something new
With my fingers crossed behind my back, I’m growing the rare Ouachita gayfeather (Liatris squarrosa, var. compacta) in the native plant trial garden at Shaw Nature Reserve.
For two years, neither crows nor voles have discovered them. Crows are not a common problem with blazing stars, but voles are. Nevertheless, I’m tempting fate, which is why I plan to test-grow blazing stars in wire baskets this year — and why I have made it a policy to grow and replace them year after year. They disappear after two or three years; I want a better return on our investment.
Don't give up
All this having been said, you might give up on blazing star altogether. I still love them and can’t imagine a garden without them.
They attract more King Billys and other insects than any other native plant. Few native plants are as graceful, or bloom lavender pink in mid- to late summer. They feed goldfinches in fall and white-throated sparrows in winter. They are easy to grow from seed, and seedlings appear in the garden, ensuring new plants year after year if you know how to identify baby seedlings.
You can get started by purchasing blazing star from a Grow Native! professional member — see the Resource Guide at grownative.org. So set up your own blazing star nursery at home, and populate your garden and neighborhood with tasty, beautiful Liatris that will delight everybody and everything.
Horticulturalist Woodbury is curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, and adviser to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! program.