Friday, April 15, 2011
Wednesday Wildflower: Blazing Star, not Blazingstar
Now that the partial thaw has been obliterated by the most recent blizzard and all is covered again in white, I think I need another Wednesday Wildflower (no matter that it is Friday) to brighten up the springless reality. A Blazing Star seems like a good counter to the grey and white.
The purist may disagree that Liatris spicata (L.), also known as Dense Blazing Star or Gayfeather, is a wildflower here: its ‘natural’ range only extends across the eastern half of Canada and the United States, but that is close enough for me. The jackrabbit in the picture doesn’t seem to mind either, although I must say that only one or two stalks were snipped, so it probably doesn’t taste very good. I suspect that may be due to residual alkaloids in the stems and leaves. Much of the scientific literature that I found is devoted to bioprospecting members of the genus for novel chemical compounds.
Blazing Star is a composite, so each of the ‘flowers’ is actually a composite head of small florets, in this case only disk florets and none of the ray florets that give daisies or sunflowers their bright ‘petals’. The plants are perennial and can be purchased as ‘bulbs’, actually a corm (but they look like tubers to me). I like the purple ones best, and so do the bumblebees. Several horticultural varieties have been developed for shorter stature and longer bloom times, but a white-flowered form Liatris spicata 'Alba' usually demands a premium. I’m not sure why. My only clump cocked it last summer, but I will miss it only in the way a collector dislikes not having an exemplar.
Blazing Star make nice cut flowers, with the interesting habit of blooming from the top to the bottom of the spike, and they seem to tolerate Zone 3 just fine. If you find the thought of planting an ‘alien’ wildflower offensive, then you might look for one of the two species of Liatris that are ‘native’ to Alberta. Dotted Blazing Star (Liatris punctata Hook.) can be found in dry grasslands and hillsides in the southern third of Alberta especially where there is sandy soil. I suspect that very good drainage would be required to grow this successfully. This may also be true of Meadow (aka Rocky Mountain) Blazing Star (Liatris ligulistylis (A. Nels.) K. Scum.) which inhabits sandy woods in the aspen parklands. I am indebted to my friend Matthias Buck for a picture of Meadow Blazing Star from the Ukalta Dunes north east of Edmonton.
The origin of the generic name Liatris seems to be shrouded in mystery (or just plain obscure), but that of its common name homonym, Mentzelia, is not. The latter was named for one Mentzel, a German botanist working in the 17th Century. As well as being called Blazingstar all run together, they are called Blazing Star, Evening Star (some are white and open in the evening, suggesting moth pollination), and Sand Lily. Only one species, Mentzelia decapetala, makes it into Alberta naturally at this point in time, and then only into the most southern parts of the Province. Ten-petal Blazing Star is one of those evening lilies and the flowers, at least, are spectacular (the plant is sticky and weedy-looking). I’ve only grown Lindley’s Blazing Star (Mentzelia lindleyi), a delightful yellow annual from California and Arizona, but one that does better in the greenhouse than in the yard. I think Edmonton has been far too cold and wet in recent years for this plant to thrive.