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Fall Bloomer

Unlike most wildflowers, the gayfeather waits until fall to put on a show.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Fall’s predominant wildflowers - goldenrods, golden asters and Maximilian sunflowers - bloom in bright buttery hues. One exception is the lavender-colored gayfeather (Liatris spicata), a perennial beauty that produces tightly clustered flowerheads on wand-like spikes. Drought tolerant, the gayfeather sometimes called “blazing star”flourishes in the sandy soils of rocky hillsides, prairies, plains and woodlands.

Liatris’ purple blooms attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds; its seeds feed goldfinches and other songbirds. In gardens and landscapes, sun-loving gayfeathers thrive with minimum care and little water. As cut flowers, they dry well and retain their color, which makes them a favorite among commercial florists.

Gayfeathers grow from large, bulb-like roots (corms), which were once used as a diuretic. Extracts of coumarin from roots were also believed to keep moths away from clothing, treat sore throats and rattlesnake bites. (From the latter use came another common name for the wildflower: button snakeroot.) According to A Modern Herbal (1931), tobacco farmers in southern parts of the U.S. once employed liatris to flavor their products.

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