Pollinator season has begun and along with that comes the search for some amazing pollinator attracting plants to offer them nectar for energy and food sources for butterfly caterpillars. With that being said, Gayfeather, or Liatris, has been voted this year’s unofficial pollinator plant by The Texas Butterfly Ranch. The native variety, Liatris punctata var. mucronata, is what has been selected by The Texas Butterfly Ranch, but it is also VERY, VERY hard to find. Seeds are scarce, making plant availability even less scarce. At Rainbow Gardens, we have brought in another variety of Gayfeather, while not native, this variety has qualities that might just make it easier to grow in common, home gardens. Today we are taking a look at the adapted Gayfeather variety, Liatris spicata, which you can find in limited quantities at our stores. Gayfeather and Liatris will be used interchangeably throughout this blog.
Field of gayfeather, liatris spicata

Gayfeather (Liatris spicata) Characteristics

One of the main differences between the native Gayfeather (Liatris punctata var.mucronata) and the adapted Gayfeather (Liatris spicata), is the types of soil that they are fond of growing in. While native Gayfeather is more at home on the rocky cliffs on the Hill Country where they rely on rainfall only, the adapted Gayfeather (Liatris spicata) is more at home in average garden soils that get watered routinely. Average, moist soil does NOT mean soggy soil. The soil must still drain well, standing water will not suffice. Gayfeather appears to tolerate heat and humidity well, which is a plus for plantings in our area.

Plant Liatris spicata 6” to 1’ apart in well-worked gardens enriched with organic material. This will help provide the slight acidic to neutral soil pH they do best in. Liatris will spread by shallow corms and also propagate itself by seed. Gayfeather looks stunning when planted in mass. The showy flowers are a welcome treat in early fall and make a fun cut flower specimen.

Close up of liatris, gayfeather.

If you’ve never seen Liatris in action, you are in for a treat. One of the reasons Gayfeather is appreciated for its pollinator-attracting qualities is that its bloom time coincides with the fall migration of the Monarch butterflies in fall. From late July to October (and sometimes longer), the purple-tufted spikes bloom and lure in all sorts of pollinators. Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds seek out the nectar on the tall stalks lined with purple flowers, while birds devour the seeds in winter.

It is important to know, for those of you just getting started with Gayfeather, that it is a perennial and also a wildflower. This means it can take up to 3 years for full bloom production. This is a plant-it-now and reap-the-benefits-later type of plant, not an instant gratification type of plant. But the wait could be well worth it for those of you who are really interested in pollinator gardening. You will get a few spikes with blooms the first year, more the second, and then have a great production year three.

Bee on perennial wildflower.

A Quick Look at Gayfeather, (Liatris spicata)

Other Names: Gayfeather, Dense Blazing Star
Category: Herbaceous Perennial Wildflower
Light Exposure: Full Sun (6 hours or more)
Average Growth at Maturity: 3-4 feet (sometimes taller) x 1-2 feet wide
Soil Preference: Clay, Loam, Sand, moist but well-draining
Water Usage: Medium
Bloom Color: Lavender-Purple/Pink-Purple
Foliage Type: Delicate grasslike clumping bases with tall, rigid stems
Hardy to Zone 10

If you would like to learn more about the native Gayfeather (Liatris punctata var. mucronata), you can read up on it both at The Texas Butterfly Ranch and Wildflower.Org. Just know that we do not currently have that specimen here at Rainbow Gardens.

~The Happy Gardener, Lisa Mulroy