Friday, September 15, 2017

Not All Liatrises Are Created Equal

You know those lists that you see of plants that are great for pollinators and plants that attract butterflies and so on?  Liatris is one plant I always see on those lists.  I also read somewhere that they were absolutely irresistible to Monarch Butterflies, thus I decided to plant some in the garden.

I purchased a bunch of corms (bulbs) of both the purple and white varieties of the native Liatris spicata, a.k.a. Dense Blazing Star or Gayfeather, which is the Liatris that nurseries most commonly sell.  I planted them in the garden, sat back, and waited for their blooms to attract butterflies and other pollinators in droves.

I was disappointed.

Other than the occasional bee, they seemed to attract pretty much nada.  Maybe I just had too many fabulous other plants blooming at the same time (in all fairness, they had to compete with the Coneflowers and Milkweed), but this Liatris definitely was not living up to its list-making reputation.

a lone bee on Liatris spicata
So were all those lists lying about how much butterflies love Liatris?   I did a little research and realized that when people were talking about Liatris and Monarch butterflies, specifically, they usually mentioned Liatris ligulistylis, a.k.a. Meadow Blazing Star or Rocky Mountain Blazing Star, not the type I had planted.  This Liatris was a little harder to find, but I just had to get some.  Last year I found and ordered some online, and this year they bloomed for the first time.

Monarch butterflies on Liatris ligulistylis
That was more like it.

All of the Monarchs that flew into my garden were drawn to this plant.  It was true - this Liatris is a magnet for Monarch butterflies!

Other pollinators enjoyed it, too...

bee on Liatris ligulistylis
It makes me wonder why this variety of Liatris is not more commonly found.  Maybe people just like the look of the more commonly sold Liatris spicata better?  (It is often used in the cut-flower industry.)  My new Liatris ligulistylis does look a little more awkward with its more unevenly-spaced flowers.  It can also grow quite tall - mine are mostly around 5 feet.  I've found that many people are somewhat wary of growing tall flowers, and the common L. spicata is usually only around 3 or 4 feet tall, shorter and easier to fit into smaller gardens.

Liatris ligulistylis
It is a good thing I love tall flowers in my garden - one of my L. ligulistylis even grew to an impressive seven feet tall!  Even more impressively, it didn't need to be staked until a couple of severe rainstorms finally wore it down and caused it to lean sideways.  (Of course, that might just be a sign of the poorness of my soil - these plants do have a reputation for leaning in richer or moister soils.)

Liatris ligulistylis, with its 'blazing star' type flowers
Liatris ligulistylis blooms in late summer, a little later than L. spicata.  It likes full sun and medium-wet to medium-dry soil, but it also tolerates poor soil, light shade, and drought when established.  It is native to central North America and hardy in zones 3-8.

Liatris seed
Now in fall, the blooms on my L. ligulistylis are starting to fade.  However, the steady stream of visitors to this plant still continues, as the Goldfinches have now discovered the ripening seeds.

Goldfinch on Liatris ligulistylis
I have to say that, at least in my garden, not all Liatrises seem to be created equal.  

Monarch butterfly on Liatris ligulistylis
I think you can tell which one I like better.


  1. Tall flowers aren't as popular here either. We assume it due to the winds we can get (they topple over) or peoples obsession with their landscape looking neat and tidy. Your Liatrises are definitely popular in your garden...well one of them anyway.

    1. I think many people have the idea that trees should be tall, shrubs should be medium height, and flowers should be short, and they are not sure how to landscape differently. I do see people here sometimes growing tall clumps of those mammoth sunflowers, though, which are so awesome. I can see not wanting to grow tall flowers due to strong wind, though!

  2. What a difference a change of Liatris makes! It's wonderful to see a plant of value to pollinators and birds.

    1. The more commonly sold Liatris is native, so I'm sure it must provide some value, especially in the wild. In my garden, though, it just doesn't have nearly the appeal as my other plants that are in bloom then do!

  3. I had no idea -- I only have the spicata type as well. I'm so glad you researched this and shared your findings -- thanks! Hope you're enjoying a warm, sunny autumn, Best, -Beth

  4. I also have planted the Gayfeather liatris. This year I was in a hurry and bought a liatris but didn't know until it bloomed that it was Liatris ligulistylis (did I spell that right?). I am very happy with it and hope it spreads a little.

  5. So glad you posted about this - I've added it to my must-have list!

  6. I'm going to have to try that one. I've heard good things about it, and it's lovely, too. Great captures of the butterflies!

  7. I love that Liatris ligulistylis attracts both monarchs and goldfinches. What a great plant! I was not familiar with this one. Thanks for the very helpful info!

  8. Good to know! I've always assumed the liatris the lists were talking about was the first, as well. I will have to keep an eye out for this variety.

  9. I have not had good luck with Liatris. I do need to try the ligulistylis, though.

  10. I was not overly impressed with Liatris when years ago I grew the first one you described. Thanks for the introduction to Liatris ligulistylis. It sounds like a winner!

  11. I had the same problem with liatrus and boy when I planted both, the monarchs certainly set me straight....I do love both in my garden....great photos.


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