When pioneers crossed the Missouri prairies in the early 1800s, the magenta spikes of blazing stars were a welcome sight. Their lush blooms rising out of the sun-baked grasslands in July and August provided a visual treat to weary travelers.
If your wanderlust takes you across Missouri this summer, look for our lovely Liatris species. You may find them from the Glaciated Plains in the north to the Ozarks in the south.
Missouri is home to eight stunning species in the genus Liatris, the plant group to which blazing stars, also known as gayfeather or button snakeroot, belong. Although each species is distinct, all are sun-loving and drought-tolerant. Liatris species are adapted to prairies, glades and open woodlands. These natural communities usually have dry soil and are saturated by direct sunlight.
In shade-dappled woodlands, a few plucky blazing star plants may grow for years, blooming only when windfalls allow more sunlight to reach the woodland floor. Liatris species also rebound after prescribed fires or cedar-cutting restore these communities to their more open, original character.
How to identify Liatris species
All Liatris species have numerous narrow leaves along the stem and purple, pink, magenta or occasionally white flower clusters. They are perennials and have either fleshy corms from which fibrous roots grow, or thick, branching taproots, some attaining depths of 15 feet.
In all species, each flower is tubular with five lobes and two threadlike styles that protrude from the petals. The style is the structure through which pollen reaches a flower's ovary.
Depending on the species, each flower cluster may contain thee to 40 individual flowers. Some blazing stars have many flower clusters that form a solid spike of color. Others have solitary clusters or just a few.
The best way to tell the four most widespread species apart is to look at the tiny bracts. These are the small leaflike structures that overlap like roof shingles below each small cluster of flowers. The collective term for these bracts is "involucre." Rough blazing star, for example, has rounded bracts with the edges rolled back and papery tips. Scaly blazing star has pointy bracts that bend back sharply. Other blazing stars are restricted to certain parts of the state, so their location helps you identify them.
The four most common blazing stars
Gayfeather or Blazing star - Liatris pycnostachya
Perhaps the best known blazing star species, Liatris pycnostachya, is widespread in Missouri