Blazing Star — Thriving on Rock Outcrops

Our harshest habitats are home to some of our most beautiful and delicate-looking plants. Blazing Star (Liatris), sometimes called Gayfeather, is one of those. Look for it in late summer on sandstone rock outcrops and cliff edges. It takes the least bit of acidic soil to make this pretty bloomer happy. The Liatris microcephala (Small) K. Schum. (Smallhead Blazing Star), plant shown here is growing in about an inch of soil over sandstone, along with reindeer moss, hairy-capped moss, Virginia pine, blackjack oak, farkleberry, and other plants that can survive life out on a hot, dry rock.
For most of the growing season, this plant with its long narrow basal leaves could be confused with a grass. But in late summer the flower stalk emerges, and the beautiful lavender flower heads develop. The genus is unusual in that the flowers at the top of the stalk, rather than those at the bottom, mature first. Three species of Liatris, in addition to L. microcephala, inhabit the Domain: L cylindracea Michx. (threatened in Tennessee), L. scariosa (L.) Willd. (Northern Blazing Star), and L. squarrulosa Michx. (Southern Blazing Star). See the University of Tennessee Herbarium website for more photos and the known ranges in Tennessee of these plants.   Although it’s impossible to confuse Liatris with Vernonia (Ironweed), both plants bloom at the same time, bear purple heads composed only of disk flowers, and attract plenty of butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.


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