These purple perennial native wildflowers add color to the fall landscape
A fall stroll down a Lake Martin country road is likely to reveal a breathtaking natural wildflower bouquet – the darker greens of autumn are polka-dotted with yellows and whites and often accented with streaks of purple.
And there’s a good chance those purple streaks are “blazing stars.”
Blazing stars are a group of about 40 perennial wildflowers native to North America.
These flowers are members of the huge aster family – the family that includes daisies, sunflowers and a grand total of almost 33,000 species.
The scientific name for the blazing star genus is Liatris (Lie-aye-tris), a name often used by florists and gardeners. Another common name for this same group is gayfeather. The purple flower shown here is a Grassleaf Blazing Star, Shaggy Blazing Star, Greene’s Elegant Gayfeather and Grassleaf Gayfeather. Same flower; different common names.
Scientists know it as Liatris elegantula.
Dr. Brian Keener, a botany professor at The University of West Alabama, said Alabama is home to 14 species of blazing stars and two hybrids.
While many of them are pretty enough to be grown in flower gardens, blazing stars grow wild in many locations, from the sandy dunes on the Alabama Gulf Coast all the way up into the mountainous northeast corner of the state.
“We’ve got four or five that are very common,” Keener said, “The Grassleaf Blazing Star, Liatris elegantula, is a very common species, especially around Lake Martin.”
Grassleaf Blazing Star grows throughout Alabama, as well as in Mississippi, Florida and Georgia.
Here around Lake Martin, you are likely to find them in rocky, pine forests, but they are also found on longleaf pine, scrub oak forests or dry mixed pine-hardwood forests and on the edges of fields and on the shoulders of roads.
These plants can be up to 3 feet tall, and their stems are green and usually straight and unbranched. This blazing star can be found growing straight up or sometimes at an angle, propped up by other plants in the forest.
Grassleaf Blazing Star leaves are long and thin, and if you look real close, they have white hairs on their edges close to the stem. These leaves are attached directly to the stem without stalks and grow alternately up the stem. The largest leaves grow at the bottom of the plant, and the leaves get progressively smaller up the stem.
The scores of bright purple flowerheads are the crowning glory of Grassleaf Blazing Stars.
“What you see is not just a flower. They have several flowers tucked away in something we call a ‘head,’” Keener said.
Grassleaf Blazing Star’s purple flowerheads line the wildflower’s stem and are a bit unusual because they begin opening from the top of the stem and work their way down.
Each flowerhead is made up of a cluster of between eight and 11 flowers. Each tube-shaped flower has five lobes. The long, wavy stigma, which emerge from each flower, look like tiny purple sea anemones.
Keener said blazing star blossoms initially start out with five stamens (the male organ in a flower) that don’t stick out of the flower very far. As the flower ages, the stigma, which is the “tip-top of the female part of the flower,” extends farther out. Blazing stars are pollinated by butterflies, bees and other insects that pick up pollen from stamens and deposit it on stigmas as they go from flower to flower searching for nectar.
As cut flowers, Grassleaf Blazing Stars are very pretty and so long-lasting in arrangements that many people want to raise them in wildflower gardens.
“If someone found a roadside population that was ample in number, and they wanted to grow a few individuals, if they were careful not to decimate the population, they could perhaps extract two or three,” Keener said. “Most of them have a nice globose corm, a spherical, starch-filled underground stem – kind of like a potato but not exactly – and they’re pretty easily transferred. Alternatively, they could gather the seeds and germinate them.”
If you are growing blazing stars, there is a good chance the stems will need to be staked to prevent them from falling over as the plant matures.
“I grow these in my garden, and Liatris is my wife’s favorite wildflower, so whenever we see different ones, we typically extract two or three just to put in our wildflower garden. They’re always very pretty when they flower,” he said. “I counted this year, and we have six different species that flower at different times.”
Keener said one of the rarest wildflowers in the United States is a blazing star called Liatris oligocephala. This flower, also known as a Cahaba Torch, was first recognized and named in 2001 and is only found in Bibb County, Alabama. Due to the rarity of the Cahaba Torch, Keener said it should never be taken from the wild.