Sue Pike – seacoastonline.com 8/23/22
It’s not too late to see northern blazing stars in all of their glory. You need to find some dry grasslands, preferably with sandy soil, and look for a spiky purple flower. I was up visiting the Kennebunk Plains this past week looking for these beautiful flowers, a wonderful place to look for rare and unusual plants and animals. These grasslands are home to grasshopper sparrows (endangered in Maine) and upland sandpipers (threatened in Maine). This is the home to one of only two known populations of the endangered black racer snake. There is a big sign that tells you all about these gorgeous snakes, however (for those of you not into snakes) the chance of seeing one is virtually nil.
The reason to go to the Kennebunk Plains to see northern blazing stars is that they occur virtually nowhere else in Maine. Also, the Kennebunk Plains population of this plant is thought to be the largest in the world. Northern (aka New England) blazing stars are native to the northeastern United States, in fact they are endemic to this area-meaning they occur nowhere else in the world. Sadly northern blazing stars are rare and protected in most of New England-they are state-listed as threatened in Maine and endangered in New Hampshire. While northern blazing stars can be found in a variety of habitats-from grasslands, meadows, cliffs, beaches and coastal meadows, even anthropogenic (man-made or disturbed) habitats, a place like the Kennebunk Plains with its vast sandplain grasslands that are kept open by the use of controlled burns presents as ideal viewing as you can get.
If you are interested in the bigger picture you might want to visit the Kennebunk Plains simply for its grasslands, which are considered to be one of the rarest and most threatened natural communities in New England. The Kennebunk Plains was formed by glacial retreat approximately 14,000 years ago. Meltwater streams formed outwash plains composed of well-sorted sand and gravel. These sandy soils have little capacity to hold water and nutrients and so the vegetation is subject to recurring drought and fire (maine.gov). Many of the plants that thrive in places like the Kennebunk Plains are therefore drought and fire-adapted. Species like the pitch pine which have thick bark that acts as armor against fire and serotinous pine cones-a type of pine cone covered with a thick resin that needs to be melted (by fire) before the cone can open and release its seeds. Fire also benefits the northern blazing star. Studies have shown that following fire there is an increase in the number of flowering plants and seeds produced per flower head, as well as a decrease in the amount of seed predation by moth larvae. Fire also increased seedling establishment and growth by reducing leaf litter (Peter Vickery, 2009).
This particular habitat with this particular soil type isn’t restricted to the Kennebunk Plains, you can find it in the Wells Barrens, even my backyard-this is unfortunate for all the non-drought and non-fire-adapted plants I keep trying to grow there.
I have grown blazing stars in my garden for years and years, however I haven’t been growing our native northern blazing star (Liatris novae-angliae). Globally, there are about 45 species in genus Liatris. They are all native to North America. The blazing star you can find in most local greenhouses is Liatris spicata (Licata is the genus, spicata is the species), a species with a more southern natural distribution. This is what I grew in my garden until I began my quest to preserve local biodiversity by planting native species whenever possible. Liatris spicata is often marketed as a native plant, but now I know to always double check by looking for the species name-in this case ‘novae-angliae’. As a result of visiting the Kennebunk Plains while the blazing star was blooming I have a new vision for the sandy soil parts of my property-instead of changing the soil into something it’s not, I plan to embrace the glacial heritage of this land (this speaks to the Earth Science teacher in me!) and work on restoring the sandplain grassland habitat it was meant to be.