Conservation Corner

July: The Flower and the Firmament 

By Dan Zarlenga,
Missouri Department of Conservation 

July is when the warm nights of summer tempt us to stay out a bit later, past our normal bedtimes, drawn to the spectacle of a starry sky. It’s also the month a star of a different kind comes out—prairie blazing star. 

The name “blazing star” is actually given to a group of related plants, of which prairie blazing star is one of the most popular and showy. This native wildflower stands out, literally, as a tall stalk that can grow two-to-five feet high. The stalk is lined by spiky leaves and topped with a crown of many densely crowded, rose-purple flowerheads. The flowers evoke a lock of purple hair. 

As you might guess from the name, prairie blazing star is commonly found on native grasslands in Missouri, where it can grow in massive clumps. But it can exist almost anywhere in the state, including on the tops of bluffs, in savannas, glades, and openings of upland forests. In more human-impacted environments, it is often seen in ditch banks, fencerows, pastures, railroads, and roadsides. Prairie blazing star is a very popular feature in native landscaping, too. 

The plant is popular with pollinators and insects. It attracts monarchs and other butterflies, skippers, bees, beetles, flies, and many more insects that collect pollen or nectar. Our feathered friends the birds are eager to eat the fruits of blazing stars, which resemble tiny sunflower seeds. 

Like so many other plants of the tallgrass prairie, this blazing star’s roots anchor it deep into the ground, reaching 10-to 12-feet beath the surface. This gives the plant and its prairie kin the ability to seek deeply buried water and survive dry conditions better than plants with less hardy root systems. The penetrating roots also serve to stabilize soils and help protect against erosion. 

Interestingly, the peak bloom of prairie blazing star just so happens to be great time to see a spectacular blazing stream of stars in the sky—the great Milky Way Galaxy! The brightest section of the Milky Way is visible during the summer, sprawly directly overhead by around midnight. With their open skies, prairies and glades are ideal places to see stars both blazing from the ground and the sky. 

Our Milky Way galaxy is a disc-shaped assembly of a 100 billion stars made up of spiral arms wrapped around a spherical central bulge. The shimmering strip we see above is an edge-on view of that disc. The bright core of the central bulge is visible from our skies low in the southern horizon, in the Constellation Sagittarius. 

The best way to view the Milky Way is with the unaided eye from a site far away from city lights, and on a moonless night. All you need is a reclining camp chair, and perhaps a few creature comforts like a blanket or bug spray. What an awesome excuse to stay out late or go on a camping trip! 

As prairie blazing star reaches its purple stalks toward the dazzling stars of the Milky Way, it reminds us that everything in the universe is connected, from the flowers to the firmament.