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growing gayfeather from seed

Purple Down from the Top Down: Growing Blazing Star Gayfeather from Seed

We love exotic-looking plants that defy the "hothouse flower" cliché, especially when they're incredibly easy keepers...and native species to boot. Blazing star gayfeathers are a fantastic pick for gardeners who want all the glory with minimal effort.

Feel like being smug? Do you want your garden to not only make a statement, but open the door for you to several of your own? Grow a bunch of gayflowers, and wait for the admirers to gather 'round. Pour yourself a nice frosty adult beverage, and get ready for your front porch press conference. Here are a few responses to jot down on your cue cards (empty seed packets work pretty well for this, in a pinch):

  • "They only look imported, but I only support locally-grown and manufactured products sold by family-run enterprises."
  • "No rain forests or threatened species were damaged in pursuit of these exotic plants."
  • "Stop snickering. 'Gay' used to mean "happy," and now it also means 'resilient, gorgeous, proud, colorful, unique, and strong'. What's your problem? Are you twelve or something?"
  • "I will happily give you a divided plant in exchange for a bottle of top-shelf vodka!"

You WILL get a reaction from gayfeathers. They're not spotted in gardens as frequently as they should be, and even if they were among the most ubiquitous garden ornamentals, they'd never lose their novelty.

Blazing Star Gayfeather's Origins and History

You might be surprised to learn that gayfeathers are members of the aster family (Asteraceae), which includes daisies, coneflowers, and sunflowers. But hey, it's a big family that also includes artichokes, so why not?

Each threadlike gayflower blossom is the equivalent of the disc florets found in a compound flower's centers. As for the rest of the flower, if you compare a budding dandelion with an individual flower nodule on a gayfeather spike. You'll recognize the family resemblance...but from a distance, you'd think members of the Liatris genus were adopted, if not transported from another dimension.

Liatris spicata is native to the U.S. East Coast, specifically the central and northern regions. The Liatris genus includes species indigenous to most of North America, with a few native to the Bahamas.

Medicinal Uses

Before we go into gayfeather's role in herbal medicine, we want to issue a warning. The plant contains coumarin, a compound used in contemporary medicine to prevent blood clotting when it's ingested. Gayfeather poultices shouldn't be applied to open wounds. Having said that, coumarin is found in many other plants, most notably Cassia cinnamon.

Liatris spicata has a long history among northeastern Native American people as a medicinal herb, treating muscle and bone aches, edema, heart problems, and congestion. Today, it's used by herbalists to treat the following:

  • Gonorrhea
  • Sore throat
  • Kidney disease

It's also considered to have antibacterial properties, and there's been some dabbling in its potential role (and that of other members of the Liatris genus) in the battle against leukemia and cancer. All parts of the plants—the tuberous roots, the foliage, and the flowers—are reportedly used in medicinal applications.

For an index of scientific literature pertaining to the potential therapeutic uses for L. spicata, check out Birmingham-Southern College's Medicinal Plant Garden.

Gayfeather in the Garden

Blazing star gayfeather (Liatris spicata) prefers more moisture than other gayflowers, but retains its drought-tolerance. You'll be hard-pressed to find a sunny spot where it won't thrive, as long as you don't dunk it among your pond lilies or plant it in overly alkaline soil. Plant them en masse, in small clusters along walkways, or in containers.

They look great planted among Peruvian lilies (Alstroemeria), due to their similar foliage but strikingly different flower shapes. Intersperse them with torch lilies (kniphofia) or grow them with other North American native wildflowers. They look super cool contrasted with black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta) and blanket flowers (Gaillardia aristata), or if you're into a multi-shaded yet monochromatic theme, grow them them with bellflowers or purple coneflowers.

For a more sparse, low-maintenance garden, try growing gayfeather from seed in trios near clumping ornamental grasses.

If you have limited space, or you want to dress up your patio, grow gayfeather as a container plant. Remember, they grow quite tall and have hefty roots, so plant them with species that will balance out their scale and won't mind a little below-ground crowding. They do well with coreopsis and alyssum, for starters, but we'll leave it up to your imagination.

Gayflowers produce copious nectar, and are a must-have for butterfly gardens. You'll also see the occasional hummingbird buzz by, and speaking of buzzing, bumbles and other pollinating bees and wasps will thank you for the free lunch. They're deer and rabbit resistant, and as you'll read further on, they're incredibly resilient against pests and disease.

Are you ready to learn how to grow this super low-maintenance yet high-drama plant?

USDA Hardiness Zones: Gayfeather is perennial in zones 3 through 10.

Sunlight Preferences: Full sun. Avoid all shade if possible.

Moisture Requirements: Liatris spicata is drought tolerant, in spite of the nickname "marsh blazing star." In the wild, you can find it along the edges of riparian areas or in dry ditches. Just don't let gayflower sit in standing water. If you do grow them in consistently damp beds, be sure to space them more widely than you would in a xeriscape application.

Soil Preferences: Well-drained soil of any quality, though we recommend amending compacted or depleted soil with some rotted compost prior to planting. In areas with a lot of winter rainfall and high-clay soils, double-dig your beds and add in plenty of garden sand. The roots can reach as much as 14" deep, and they'll rot if water pools in impermeable soils. Gayfeather's ideal pH range is between 5.8 to 6.8.

Plant Height: 4' to 6', with the spikes accounting for at least half of the overall height.

Plant Width: 3/4' to 1.5' wide.

Growth Habit: Plants don't get more "upright" than these. L. spicata grows 1 or 2 sturdy, non-branching stalks from a base that resembles a clump of long-bladed (12") grass. The stalks resemble those of bamboo or corn, with single-bladed alternating leaves emerging from the stem's nodes. The leaves themselves are rich green, pointing upward; they're longer at the base, growing shorter to the top before giving way to the flowering terminal spike.

Bloom Period: Late summer, usually July through August or September. While the spectacular blooms only show up in the latter half of summer, the growing foliage is, itself, visually interesting.

Flowers: Fluffy, downy sessile lavender to purple blossoms emerge from small cylindrical nodules growing in an alternating pattern up the terminal spike. Unlike many plants with blooming racemes, gayflower's blossoms emerge from the top downward.

Pests & Diseases: Liatris spicata isn't particularly susceptible to pests or diseases, though fungal diseases and root rot are a problem with plants kept in poorly-drained soil or overly-crowded environments.

Maintenance: Gayfeather plants must be divided by the corms about every 2 to years to keep them vibrant. (By corms, we mean bulbous roots, not hamster treats).

Harvesting: Dry inverted plants, stem and all, in a well-ventilated area. Brush off (but don't wash) the roots, and dry them in paper bags in a cool, dark cupboard or root cellar. Don't cut them up until you're ready to use them. Gayflowers make fantastic fresh-cut or dried flowers.

Gayfeather is Pet and Family-Friendly

Liatris spicata, aside from its ability to prevent clotting, is generally safe for pets and small children in the amounts one might expect them to ingest during an ordinary garden plant raid. If you suspect your pet or child (or drunken party guest) has gone overboard, see your with any plant known to have medicinal properties.

Growing Gayfeather from Seed

Be sure to keep your seedlings moist at all times until your plants are established.

  • Seed Treatment: All gayfeathers benefit from a cold stratification period; we recommend 30 days.
  • When to Plant Outdoors: Plant outside after your last spring frost, or when soil temperatures reach 68°F.
  • When (and How) to Plant Indoors: At least 6 to 8 weeks prior to your last frost. Plant them under lights. Some gardeners start them in the fall and allow the plants to get a healthy good start in a heated sunny room or greenhouse before transplanting them in the spring. Be sure to transplant them to deeper pots after they outgrow their nursery trays to give the tuberous roots room to grow. We recommend using a sterile, fluffy seedling mix, and an intermediary potting mix with peat moss, Perlite, and sand mixed in.  
  • Seed Depth: 1/8" maximum depth, or gently pressed into the soil's surface. You can scatter the seeds for a massed effect (not Mass Effect) but be sure to thin them once they emerge.
  • Plant Spacing: Crowding will encourage mildew. Space or thin 12" apart for hot, arid gardens, 18" for more humid environments. Remember, their base leaves are very long, so they'll still cover a lot of ground.
  • Days to Germination: Gayfeather seeds are slow to germinate, but should emerge in about 2 to 5 weeks at 68°F.

Transplant your indoor-started gayfeather seedlings once they've reached at least 2" to 3" inches in height. Harden them out for about a week before planting.

Source Your Gayfeather Seeds from Seed Needs

Gayfeather seeds have a reputation for being difficult to germinate. Often, the problem lies with stale, dusty, dessicated seeds. We hope our advice helps, and we encourage you to consider Seed Needs as your garden seed supplier. We only purchase what we'll sell in a single season, and our climate-controlled storage preserves their quality and viability until they're ready to be shipped to you.

Our favorite gayfeather variety, Liatris spicata, is a user-friendly Gayfeather species and one that's certain to produce for even entry-level gardeners. And we're a user-friendly, family-operated company. Contact us if you have any questions about your order, or if you'd like custom-packaged gayfeather seeds for wedding favors, nursery stock, or gifts!
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