There’s a plant with spikes of eye-catching purple flowers near the front entry of Weezie’s Garden this month. It’s Liatris, a staple of New England gardens, and it deserves a closer look not only because it’s a handsome addition to any perennial bed, but because of the way it blooms.
Pick almost any other plant in the world and it flowers by putting up a head, panticle or spike. The flowers then appear from the bottom up, with the oldest ones dying and dropping off as the bloom cycle progresses. Liatris is one of a handful of perennials that bloom from the top down, a trait shared with certain species of Solidago (goldenrod), but not much else. (If you don’t think it’s true, go out into your garden and check it out for yourself.) Botanists attribute the unusual flowering habit to the quest for pollinating insects. Tall spikes aren’t unusual in the floral world (the Salvia family is rife with them), but what if you’re a late bloomer? You need something to make you stand out. Blooming from the top down gives you visibility and, hence, a special niche.
Liatris goes by many common names, Blazing Star, Gay Feather and Colic Root are just three. It is a native American perennial that produces tall spikes of bright purple bottlebrushes above the tufts of green, grass-like leaves in late summer. Depending on the cultivar and environmental conditions, the flower spike can be up to five feet tall. Liatris generally stays very upright and needs no staking. It prefers dry, infertile soil (virtually the only way to kill it is to over-water it). The finely textured foliage stays attractive all summer and turns a rich bronze in fall. The color range is fairly narrow: purple and white.
Though it has no daisy- or aster-like flowers, Liatris is in the family Asteraceae. There are roughly 32 different of Liatris and they occur in virtually every U.S. state east of the Rockies. They’re native from southern Canada into Northern Mexico. At least 13 of those species and several hybrids, are grown as garden plants.
You could grow Liatris just for its conversational value, but it works very well in adding vertical garden structure. If you grow it, be sure to give it plenty of room because most specimens get to be three feet wide. It’s also striking addition to either fresh or dried arrangements.