Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Liatris spicata, or the Eastern Blazing Star. It also goes by button snakewot, spiked blazing star, or gayfeather, depending what part of the country you’re from. There are not many prettier sights in the South than walking through an open field while hunting or gathering and seeing these tall, showy flower stalks shooting out of the broomsedge like purple fireworks.
Blooming in late summer through early fall, Liatris is native to the entire eastern half of the U.S., and prefers open, sunny fields and roadsides. It is most identifiable by its 2' to 3' tall bright purple flower stalks. It is very difficult to positively identify by leaves alone, so if you intend to use the plant medicinally year-round, mark it well when it blooms so you can come back to it later. A member of the Aster family, it is widely cultivated as a perennial ornamental flower.
Although it is not considered an edible, it has a wide array of medicinal uses. The leaves and the roots are equally useful – they both contain the same compounds, called coumarins. It has the same NSAID-like properties of willow bark, that is, it can be used topically or orally to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and thin blood. In fact, most pharmaceutical blood thinners such as Warfarin and Coumadin are synthesized from the coumarins that naturally occur in plants such as Liatris. Native tribes across America from the Cherokee to the Menominee used it to treat what they called a “weak heart.”
A tonic made from the plant is a powerful treatment for sore throat or mouth sores when gargled. A poultice made from the leaves or roots will work quickly to heal cuts, scrapes, and other superficial wounds. In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, the plant also acts as an analgesic to numb the pain, and as a strong antiseptic to kill bacteria and prevent infection.
Liatris is also an excellent choice for natural bug repellent. Incorporated into a salve and rubbed on exposed areas, the same active coumarins that make it such an effective medicine have the effect of being absolutely detestable to mosquitoes. Thankfully, it smells like vanilla to us humans.