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Native Wildflowers of the North Dakota Grasslands

JPG -- species photo

Tall Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya)

Only our southeasternmost counties are home to the stately tall blazing star. Nearly restricted to the tallgrass prairie biome, the species ranges from North Dakota east to Wisconsin, south to Kentucky and Louisiana and west to Texas and central Nebraska.

This stiff, single-stemmed perennial arises from a woody, egg-sized corm, and can stand nearly five feet tall. In our area, plants are usualy about three feet tall. The upper half of the plant is covered with stiff hairs. Leaves are numerous and linear; those near the base can be well over a foot long, whereas those just below the flowering spike are usually about an inch long. Flowering spikes can be up to a foot long and are crowded with hundreds of bright pinkish-purple flower heads about 1/4-inch wide. At maturity, each head can contain up to a dozen achenes (seeds) equipped with long, barbellate bristles.

Look for tall blazing star in late August or September in remnant areas of tallgrass prairie in the Red River Valley that have somehow escaped the plow. These remnants are usually found along railroad tracks or old highways. Many plants can be seen across the river at Buffalo River State Park, Minnesota, where prescribed burns maintain vigorous growing conditions, discourage introduced weeds, and prevent invasion by woody plants. This showy plant is often cultivated. Vegetal remains of tall blazing star were noted as artifacts of the Ozark bluff-dwelling Amerindians, but archaeologists could not determine what uses were made of these plants. Amerindians from near St. Louis used the plant, there called "pine of the prairies," to cure gonorrhoea. The Osage, prior to eating the starchy roots of some other members of the genus Liatris, also called "gayfeathers" or "button snakeroots," stored them until the starches changed to sugars. Other plants in the genus were important medicines.

Tall blazing star is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), one of the largest plant families in the world and the largest in North Dakota. There are about 30 species of Liatris; all are found in temperate North America from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains. The derivation of the generic name is unknown. The specific epithet pycnostachya means "with crowded spike" in botanical Latin. Tall blazing star was first described for science by the famous French botanist and explorer of North America Andre Michaux (1746-1802). In 1792, Michaux was unsuccessfully nominated by Thomas Jefferson to accompany Meriwether Lewis on a proposed expedition to explore the wilderness that lay west of the Mississippi River.

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