Prairie Blazing Star (Gayfeather)

Liatris pycnostachya
Edible
Other Common Name
Button Snakeroot
Family

Asteraceae (daisies)

Description

Prairie blazing star is a perennial with an unbranched stalk, sometimes seen by the thousands, hairy throughout. Flowerheads densely crowded around upper spikelike stalk, rose-purple. Involucral bracts (overlapping leaflike structures at the base of each flowerhead) broadly lance-shaped, recurved (flaring back), tapering to a sharp point, mostly with thin, pale to transparent margins, the margins or the entire bract sometimes strongly purplish-tinged. Heads have 4–9 disk florets. Blooms July–October. Leaves quite narrow, the lower to 20 inches long, becoming much shorter higher up. Rootstock a rounded corm.

Similar species: There are 9 species of Liatris recorded for Missouri, and many of these have been known to hybridize where they occur in the same vicinity. To distinguish between the various species and hybrids, one should be prepared to note details of the flower structure, such as the involucral bracts described above.

Size

Height: to 5 feet.

gayfeather_button_snakeroot_stalks_01-14-14.jpg

Photo of prairie blazing star or gayfeather flowering stalks
Prairie Blazing Star (Gayfeather; Button Snakeroot)

gayfeather_button_snakeroot_blazing_star_01-14-14.jpg

Photo of several prairie blazing stars or gayfeathers in a prairie
Prairie Blazing Star (Gayfeather; Button Snakeroot)

gayfeather_button_snakeroot_01-14-14.jpg

Photo of several prairie blazing stars or gayfeathers in yellow sunlight
Prairie Blazing Star (Gayfeather; Button Snakeroot)
Habitat and conservation

Occurs in glades, upland prairies, ledges and tops of bluffs, savannas, openings of upland forests, and rarely banks of streams; also ditch banks, fencerows, pastures, railroads, and roadsides. The common name "snakeroot" is applied to several Liatris species; apparently at one time they were believed to be useful for treating snakebites.

image of Prairie Blazing Star Gayfeather Button Snakeroot distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Scattered nearly throughout the state.

Human connections

Liatris species were used by Native Americans to treat a variety of ailments. Indians and early settlers also ate the roots raw or baked. Liatris are some of the showier plants used in native wildflower gardens and many are available at native plant nurseries. They are also used by florists. To understand the name "gayfeather," imagine yourself as a settler journeying west through what were formerly vast expanses of native tallgrass prairie. These showy flowers must have lifted hearts, even when the wagon wheel broke!

Ecosystem connections

A wide variety of insects visit the flowers, and birds feed on the seeds. The sweet, thickened rootstocks are relished by voles and other herbivorous mammals. Blazing stars are an important (and showy) part of the complex community of plants in the tallgrass prairie.