Liatris is a member of the aster family and although it has flower spikes sticking straight up, each spike is composed of hundreds of tiny flowers. The interesting thing about Liatris is that it opens from the top down.
Most flowers with long spikes open from the bottom up. This means that if the liatris bloom starts to get a little ugly at the top, you simply prune off the ugly bits and the bottom of the flower spike will continue to open and will look much fresher.
Liatris are plants of full hot sunshine and the tuberous roots appreciate a well drained soil and will rot in soils that hold too much water. This is particularly true of clay soils that stay wet in the winter. Clay soils are death to this plant.
In fact, if you have a very hot dry garden, this is one plant you do not want to be without. Water regularly for the first month or two to assist the plant in getting established and then leave it on its own.
While the plants can be started by seed, most gardeners propagate them by division. Dig up every four years and cut up with a sharp knife leaving one eye on each division to produce new growth and flowers.
If you're really quick in the spring, you can take tip cuttings from young tender growth and these will root quickly and yes, the plant will produce other shoots.
Or, you can start a ton of them from a few seed packages if you remember they need some cool weather before they'll germinate You'll have quite a colony in a few years.
Plant the base of the tuber one to two inches deep. This plant is similar to a peony in that you do not want to bury the eye more than an inch below the surface of the soil. Plant the individual chunks of root approximately 8 inches apart for the best show.
Just about every garden centre will stock L spicata and a few of its better known varieties such as Kobold, 'Blue Bird' that has a bluish-purple flower head and 'Snow Queen' that is a white (dirty white but white nevertheless). These make excellent garden plants at about the three foot tall size.
I have seen the following plants in specialty garden catalogues and nurseries and for the life of me, I don't know why I haven't grown them. These are gorgeous plants.
Liatris aspera or rough gayfeather grows approximately five feet tall if it's happy and it has lavender flowers. The only thing it can do is be a little floppy, particularly if you place it in a good garden soil where it will tend to grow enthusiastically. Stake it or grow it next to a rose or shrub that will support it in its old age.
Liatris elegans or pinkscale blazing star is shorter and more tender. I did try this one once in my garden but seeing as it is rated a tender zone 7, it was not very impressed with a zone 4 garden winter. It has a very large, showy lilac purple flower spike.
And another tender liatris although one worth trying as it is a zone 5 or 6 hardiness rating is L. graninifolia or grass leafed blazing star. This is a dwarf species only growing to two foot tall but it produces a ton of soft lavender flowers (some are almost white) in early fall. This is an excellent plant for the fall garden.
I do not for the life of me know why L. ligulistylis or meadow blazing star is not more readily available. A mature plant can produce a boatload of flower stems (I think the record is up around 70 stems on one plant.) The nice thing about this plant is that it will tolerate a slightly more damp soil and a slightly more rich one than its cousins. It is hardy into zone 4 but it will be hard to find. Go figure.
A good dwarf (I've actually grown this plant for two years) is L. microcephala or dwarf gayfeather. It too has a grass-like foliage and throws up several rose-purple flower spikes each year. Use this one in a rock garden. You'll likely find seed in specialist catalogues or on the Net before you'll find plants in a garden centre.
Mind you, I think somebody weeded it out one year thinking it was a weed but I can't recall who to blame for not having it now.
And if you go south or west, you may run into L. squarrosa or Earl's blazing star. I killed the seed of this plant before it had a chance to grow into my garden so I missed the reddish-violet flowers that are only twenty-four inches tall. The reason I tried growing this plant was that while the blossoms on all other Liatris look like they're a single flower spike, the blossoms on this one are separated and appear to be individual blossoms. Hardy in Colorado, it will be hardy in my garden whenever I find seed again.
The last plant that I'm including (there are around 40 species depending on how you count them) is the L squarrulosa or southern blazing star. I've not tried to grow this Southern native but friends say I should. It apparently has bright rosy-purple blooms on six foot tall flower stalks from late summer until early fall. It was even selected as the 1998 North Carolina Wildflower of the Year. I can't tell you that it is hardy but I'm told it is a tough plant. I've seen the seed in catalogues and one of these days I'll make the effort.
But do grow a liatris or two in your own garden.
Do you have a question about Liatris?