Scaly Blazing Star (Scaly Gayfeather)

Scaly blazing star blooming near Rosati Towersite
Scientific Name
Liatris squarrosa (syn. L. hirsuta, in part)
Asteraceae (daisies, sunflowers)

Scaly blazing star is one of several native Missouri species of blazing stars, or gayfeathers. It is scattered nearly statewide. Identify it by its long-pointed flowerhead bracts that spread or curl sharply away.

Missouri boasts nine native species of blazing stars (genus Liatris). These showy, upright, unbranching spikes of magenta-pink wildflowers typically bloom in sunny habitats. Like other blazing stars, scaly blazing star is a perennial with composite flowers: the actual flowers (florets) are tiny and grouped into flowerheads. Unlike more famous members of the sunflower family, blazing stars have no petal-like ray florets. Because they have only disc florets, the flowerheads look fuzzy. Liatris flowers are usually pink to reddish purple or magenta; the styles (elongated tops of the pistils) are 2-branched, threadlike, and protrude far outside the 5-lobed petal tube.

In Missouri, scaly blazing star is most often a hairy plant, with the rootstock a globe-shaped corm. It is short for a blazing star, not exceeding 30 inches in height.

In scaly blazing star, the basal and stem leaves, and most others, have 3 or 5 main veins; the basal leaves are the largest and can reach about 8 inches long and ¼ inch wide; the leaves become smaller and narrower (grasslike) up the stem.

The flowerheads are few, sessile (stalkless) or on short stalks only to ⅜ inch long, arising from the axils of the upper leaves, spaced far enough apart so that you can easily see the stalk between them. Each flowerhead holds 15–45 florets, but sometimes up to 60, especially in the terminal/top flowerhead, which is usually larger. The involucre (at the base of each flowerhead) is narrowly cup-shaped to roughly cylindrical, resembling a bur due to the reflexed, pointed involucral bracts. The involucral bracts are long-pointed and spreading, bending back sharply, looking scaly, something like the spines of cockleburs. Blooms July–September.

Missouri has 3 varieties of scaly blazing star. Of these, var. hirsuta is the most common by far, occurring nearly statewide; it is hairier than other varieties, looking fairly shaggy with long, straight, spreading hairs. Many botanists consider it a separate species, calling it hairy blazing star (or hairy gayfeather, L. hirsuta). Our other varieties are glabrata (more common in northern Missouri) and squarrosa (more common in southern Missouri).

Learn more about this and Missouri’s other blazing stars on their group page.

Similar species: Compared to Missouri’s other species of blazing stars, scaly blazing star is most similar to cylindrical blazing star (also called dwarf blazing star or few-headed blazing star; L. cylindracea). Both are short (for blazing stars) and have the flowerheads alternate on the stalk (not crowded together). Both have 3 or 5 main veins in the leaves. But note these differences:

  • In L. cylindracea, the involucral bracts are appressed (flattened against the involucre), which accentuates the cylindrical look of the flowerhead base. In L. squarrosa, they curl away from the involucre, making the involucre look something like a bur.
  • L. squarrosa is often a hairy plant, while L. cylindracea is usually smooth.
  • The topmost flowerhead in L. squarrosa is usually noticeably bigger, containing more florets, while the flowerheads of L. cylindracea are usually about the same size.
  • L. cylindracea does not grow taller than 12 inches, while L. squarrosa may grow up to 30 inches in height.

Where they grow near one another, L. squarrosa and L. cylindracea sometimes hybridize, and their offspring may look like a confusing blend of both. Indeed, all of Missouri’s different Liatris species may interbreed and create hybrids, where they grow near enough for cross-pollination to occur among the plants. Also, the hybrid offspring plants are often fertile and can make a colony. If you find a blazing star (or patch of blazing stars) that seems to be intermediate between official species descriptions, you may have found a hybrid. Look around for one or two of the possible parent species growing nearby.

Other Common Names
Hairy Blazing Star (in part)

Height: usually 8–30 inches, rather short compared to most other blazing stars.

Where To Find

Scattered nearly statewide, but apparently absent from most of the western half of northern Missouri.

Scaly blazing star occurs in glades, ledges and tops of bluffs, openings of dry upland forests, savannas, and upland prairies; also pastures, fencerows, railroads, and roadsides.

Native perennial wildflower.

The species name, squarrosa, means “scaly, rough”; it refers to the reflexed (spreading) involucral bracts.

Blazing stars are among the showier plants to grace native wildflower gardens as well as formal landscape plantings. Several species are in cultivation — especially the ones with big, densely packed floral spikes. This species, with its relatively dainty growth form yet comparatively large flowerheads, deserves to be cultivated more often.

In gardens, blazing stars are popular because they are a magnet for pollinators such as butterflies and bees. Birds feed on the seeds. The sweet, thickened rootstocks, however, are attractive to voles and other herbivorous mammals.

Many types of insects visit blazing stars for food. A wide variety of butterflies and skippers, bees, beetles, flies, and others collect pollen or nectar. Aphids and other sap-suckers drink the plant juices with their strawlike bills. Moth caterpillars and many other insects chew on or bore into the leaves, flowers, stems, rootstocks, or other plant parts.

In addition to the many insects that feed on the plants, other animals are attracted to blazing stars in order to hunt the herbivores (and each other): lady bugs, robber flies, mantises, assassin bugs, crab spiders, and more. Birds come to eat nearly any of the insects and spiders they can find.

Birds eat the fruits of blazing stars, which are like tiny sunflower seeds. Goldfinches are notable consumers of blazing stars, coneflowers, thistles, sunflowers, and sunflower-family seeds that develop in late summer as they nest late in the season. The fuzzy tufts of blazing star seeds are also used to line nests.

Mammals that eat blazing stars include rabbits, woodchuck, and deer, which graze on the aboveground parts of the plant, and voles, which gnaw on the corms or other thickened rootstocks.

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Similar Species
About Wildflowers, Grasses and Other Nonwoody Plants in Missouri
A very simple way of thinking about the green world is to divide the vascular plants into two groups: woody and nonwoody (or herbaceous). But this is an artificial division; many plant families include some species that are woody and some that are not. The diversity of nonwoody vascular plants is staggering! Think of all the ferns, grasses, sedges, lilies, peas, sunflowers, nightshades, milkweeds, mustards, mints, and mallows — weeds and wildflowers — and many more!