Blazing Stars (also called Gayfeathers) of the Liatris genus have general characteristics of: Stem leaves narrow and lance shaped; the flower heads, typically numbering 5 to 60 (but 160+ on a few species), appear on a spike, each flowerhead containing a number of small tubular 5-lobed pink-purple florets. Local variations in species populations will be observed. Rootstocks are corms and rhizomes.
L. cylindracea is a short plant, growing only to 24 inches high on smooth erect leafy stems. Stems may branch near the top.
The leaves are alternate and linear + or - 8 inches long and 1/2 inch wide near the base; shorter toward the top of the stem, + or - 1-1/4 inches long and 1/16 inch wide. Stem leaves are not dense on the stem. Surfaces are usually without hair although leaves toward the center of the stem may have marginal fine hair.
The floral array is spike that has only a few heads, clustered near the top of the stem, each on a one inch long stalk, or just a single terminal head.
Flowers: Flower heads are about 1 inch wide and hold 10 to 35 florets which have a pinkish purple corollas with funnelform throats, without hair on the inside but there may be fine hair on the corolla lobes which reflex outward. The stamens are not exserted but the style is long, exserted and deeply bifurcated. The phyllaries of the flower head are in 5 to 7 series, the outer series ovate-triangular grading to broadly oblong on the inners. Tips are broadly rounded to pointed. These are usually without hair but may have whitish margins. Sometimes they become deep purplish on the inner series, other times on the same plant they will remain greenish - all as shown below. All but the base series are longer than wide. The length and number of the phyllaries of this species create an identifiable smooth flower head.
Seed: Fertile flowers produce a dry seed (a cypsela), 5 to 7 mm long, that has bristly hair attached for wind dispersion. Seeds require 60 days of cold stratification for germination.
Habitat: This species of Liatris prefers full sun in well drained soil with dry to moderate moisture conditions (dry-mesic to dry). In the wild it will be found on bluffs, limestone outcrops and barrens. Long-tongued bees and butterflies will visit these plants. It grows from a globose corm-like structure with fibrous roots. It will bloom in August if an early spring, otherwise early September.
Names: The genus Liatris is an old name whose meaning has been lost. The species cylindracea, means 'long and round' and refers to the cylindrical shape of the flower head. As you can see above, a number of common names have been attached to this plant. The Garden uses the same name as USDA and the University of MN, whereas Flora of North America calls it Barrelhead Gayfeather. In Ontario, the namesake of the plant, they use 'Cylindric' Blazing Star which is what the MN DNR calls it. This is why scientific names are important. The author name for the plant classification, ‘Michx.’ is for Andre Michaux (1746-1802), French botanist who made many exploring expeditions in the U.S. collecting and cataloging many species. Two of his important works were the Histoire des chênes de l'Amérique septentrionale (1801 - Oaks of North America), and the Flora Boreali-Americana (2 vols., 1803). His son Francois, traveled with him and the father’s notes were later used for the 3-volume North American Sylva, for which Thomas Nuttall provided some supplements.
Comparisons: Several other species of blazing star have widely spaced heads in the floral array. Shaggy Blazing Star, L. pilosa, grows to 3-1/2 feet high with either smooth or finely hairy stems, fewer phyllaries and only 7 to 12 florets. Large-headed Blazing Star, L. ligulistylis, has the most widely spaced flower heads, a stem reaching 3 to 4 feet with or without fine hair, rounded tips on the phyllaries with the middle ones have irregularly cut tips, and densely packed heads with 30 to 70 florets. Scaly Blazing Star, L. squarrosa, is a short plant, with hairy stems, phyllaries that are pointed and spreading to reflexed, and 23 to 45 florets.
Above: Flower heads are not densely packed, but well spaced. Note that the color of the phyllaries can vary from greenish as seen here to purplish as shown below - all on the same plant in different years.
Below: 1st photo - L. cylindrica is a short plant, no more than 24 inches high. 2nd photo - It is identified by the cylindrical flower head with 5 to 7 series of smooth phyllaries with rounded to pointed tips. 3rd photo - Stem leaves are short and widely spaced with some marginal hair.
Below: The long lower leaves are 14 to 16x as long as wide - + or - 8 inches long; whereas the upper stem leaves are about 1-1/4 inches long and only 1/16 inch wide.
Below: 1st photo - Flower heads have 10 to 35 florets. 2nd photo - The root is a globose corm-like structure with fibrous roots.
Below: The long tubular corollas have 5 reflexed tips. Only the long bifurcated style protrudes.
Notes: Eloise Butler first recorded planting Ontario Blazing Star in 1908 and again in 1910 and 1912 with plants obtained from her source in what is now Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. Martha Crone planted seeds in 1944, '48, and '54 and plants in 1945, '46, '50, and '52. She listed the plant on her 1951 Garden Census.
Ontario Blazing Star is native to Minnesota but is quite restricted in known distribution. It is found in the metro counties (including Hennepin) and then southward along the Mississippi river plus a few adjacent counties. In the U.S. it is known only in a group of states from Minnesota on the west to New York on the east forming a northern tier and the southern limit of range is from Arkansas on the west just over to Tennessee and Kentucky on the east. Only Ontario in Canada reports it.
In Minnesota five species of Liatris are considered native and several others have been reported but have never been collected. The native five are L. aspera, Rough Blazing Star; L. cylindracea, Ontario Blazing Star; L. ligulistylis, Large-headed (or Rocky Mountain) Blazing Star; L. punctata, Dotted Blazing Star; L. pycnostachya, Prairie Blazing Star.
Eloise Butler wrote about the Blazing Stars in a Sept. 3, 1911 Minneapolis Tribune article: Virgin Minnesota prairie at the height of its bloom surpasses the far-famed flora of the tropics in brilliancy of coloring. Here all shades of red, blue and gold are intricately interwoven in earth’s tapestry before it is destroyed by autumnal frosts and replaced by Winter’s carpet of snow. Prominent in the riot of color and beauty of design are the liatras or blazing stars, with their flower heads loosely arranged in slender wands, or in splendid, compact spikes, sometimes over a foot in length. The flowers might be mistaken for thistles, but they have no stabbing prickles. Other popular names, as gay feather and button snakeroot, show the esteem in which the plants are held.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"