This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Stem stout, pubescent; leaves mostly pubescent, the lowest large, oblong or lanceolate obtuse, the upper linear, acute; heads large, fifteen to forty-flowered, roundish, sessile or pedicelled; scales of the involucre spatulate or obovate, rounded at the apex, usually with broad and colored margins; the outer ones with spreading tips. (Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States. See also Gray's Flora of the Northern United States, and Wood's Class-Book of Botany.)
THE writer's first acquaintance with this beautiful wild flower in a native condition was made in the broad and beautiful lands of the Indian Territory, where, in the language of Bryant, "Free stray the lucid streams, and find No taint in these fresh leaves and shades; Free spring the flowers that scent the wind Where never scythe has swept the glades."
It is one of the most beautiful portions of the United States, and made by nature still more beautiful by the profusion of lovely flowers which everywhere abound. Here, as in other prairie States, the plant is frequently met with, and gives a particularly interesting character to the unique prairie scenery. But it is by no means confined to these parts, for it is found in many light and dry soils from Florida and Mississippi to New England and Minnesota, extending, in a low and dwarfed condition, to the base of the Rocky Mountains, where the writer has collected it not much over a foot high, and with not more than half a dozen of its large heads of showy flowers. In the Eastern States it often makes stems three or four feet high, and we may count its heads by scores. This is particularly the case when removed to the flower garden, in the rich soils of which stems four feet long are not uncommon; and it was from a specimen brought from Kansas so growing in the writer's garden that the illustra-tion here given was made. In these districts the species now described is known as the "Blazing Star," and the long and more feathery-flowered species "Gay-feather." Our text-books give the names indifferently as applying to the whole genus; but it will serve a useful purpose to retain the former name for the wide, round-headed class, and the latter for those which give the spike a more feathery appearance. The common names given to different species, and then indifferently to any of them, have been very numerous. Rafinesque gives Throat-wort, Sawort, Button Snake-root, Back-ache-wort, Devil's bite, Rattle-snake's master, Blazing Star, Gay-feather, Prairie Pine and Rough-root. Sawort, or Saw-wort, may have been the translation of Ser-ratula, in which genus the plants now known as Liatris were included by Linnaeus. Some of the other names have an evident reference to its properties or supposed medical virtues. The knobby roots have a strong odor of turpentine when bruised, and this explains "Prairie Pine," a name which seems to have originated in Canada. "Button-snake Root" comes from its fame as a remedy in rattle-snake bites; and, as there are so many kinds of "Snake-roots," the "Button," or slightly tuberous roots, have been added as a distinguishing mark. Its "fame" seems to rest chiefly on the authority of Pursh, who says that "the inhabitants of Virginia, Kentucky and Carolina call L. sca-riosa and L.squarrosa 'Rattle-snake's master,' and that when bitten by the animal, they bruise the bulbs of the plants and apply them to the wound, while at the same time they make a decoction of them in milk, which is taken inwardly." Medical writers say that the belief in the plant's usefulness against snakebites is very general, but none of them in these times seem to have any faith in its efficacy. It is singular how notions as groundless as this probably is, come in time to pervade whole communities. Dr. Stearns, who in 1801 published an "American Herbal," notes: "The flesh of the Rattle-snake, dried and powdered, has been given in consumption," and he candidly adds, "but I never knew it to do any good." If he had lived till our time he would probably make some such remark about "the Rattle-snake's master."
Professor Wood surmises that it was somewhat in relation to its use in rattle-snake wounds that it received its name Liatris, of which other botanists say "derivation unknown." He remarks in his "Class-Book," "it is from the Greek li, an emphatic prefix, and atros, invulnerable; because used as a vulnerary." Others, as Darby for instance, say it is derived from the Greek liazo, "I come forth," in allusion to the early appearance of the leaves in spring. But these are but guesses. By Linnaeus, what we now know as Liatris was included in Serratula. Jussieu, in 1789, referring to Kuhnia, remarks: "Here also are placed those species of Serratula having naked receptacles." Schreber following in 1791, perceived that this portion of those with "naked receptacles" did not belong to Kuhnia, and it is just possible, with this smooth receptacle in his mind, he derived the name from the Greek Icia, or smooth. This point, however, though it might have suggested the original name, would be of no importance in distinguishing the genus at this time, for nearly all its immediate allies have naked receptacles, with the single exception of a genus called Carphephorus, which has a chaffy receptacle. This genus was once included in Liatris, but has been removed chiefly on account of this chaffy character. The receptacle, as the reader knows, is the broad base on which the little florets are supported, and which is surrounded by the greenish scales, forming the involucre. The chaffy scales referred to are merely very much abbreviated stem leaves, and which in many cases are wholly wanting, and in such cases we have what is known as the naked receptacle. The presence or absence of these abbreviated leaves or chaffy scales is much relied on by botanists in distinguishing genera, - so much so that, as we have seen, a genus distinct from Liatris has been made chiefly from this point of view. But as showing" how little there is in nature, beyond the apparent permanence of these little characters, to divide one genera from another, she herself takes occasion sometimes to teach us. In regard to Liatris, distinguished by its naked receptacle, Mr. N. Coleman, author of the "Catalogue of the Plants of Michigan," in a private letter to the writer, dated May 7th, 1875, says: "I have occasionally found long purple scales like those of the involucre intermixed with the florets in Liatris." Such facts are always appreciated by the modern botanical student, as they furnish the means for unlocking many of what to our forefathers were the mysteries of nature, and are indeed the basis of what is known in these days as the doctrine of evolution.
The whole genus Liatris is a particularly handsome one, and this species - the "Blue Blazing-Star," of Mrs. Lincoln's botany, - is at least as handsome as any. The roundish heads of flowers are large and brilliantly colored, and in many cases the involucral scales have colored tips, though sometimes whitish and like mere membrane, and it is from this fact that the name scariosa has been given to it, this signifying a dry, chaffy condition. Michaux was struck chiefly by the roundish heads, and describes it Liatris spheroidea, but it was described a few years before by Willde-now as L. scariosa, and this, being the prior name, is adopted.
1. Upper portion of a spike, the uppermost flower opening first.
2. Central portion of a leafy stem.
3. Side and back view, showing the colored scales of the involucre.
4. Akene and pappus.