|Glory for Your Garden:
2015 is the Year of the Gaillardia!
Like Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, some of our best garden flowers started in the New World, went to Europe for culture, then returned to great acclaim. Gaillardia is one of these. Its daisy flowers usually come in shades of red or orange with fringed rays that look like their tips have been dipped in yellow paint. Plants bloom heavily from summer through fall, don’t mind the heat, and prosper with less water than most other high-performance flowers.
History and nomenclature
There are about 23 species of Gaillardia scattered across the Americas. Most are perennials native to North America, with the heaviest concentration in the southwestern United States. But the genus includes a few annuals and biennials, and a handful of species native to South America. Closely related to the Heleniums, all are in the sunflower (Asteraceae) family.
Many are called blanket flowers. Legend has it that a native American weaver was so good at her craft that when she died, her grave was blanketed with flowers colored as brilliantly as the blankets she had made.
The first botanist to describe Gaillardia was Auguste Dennis Fougeroux de Bondaroy, who worked from specimens of a lovely, knee-high annual wildflower collected in Louisiana. In 1788, he named it Gaillardia pulchella after French naturalist Antoine Rene Gaillard de Charentoneau; pulchella is Latin for “pretty.” Its 2-inch, red flowers typically have yellow tips on their ray flowers, and a much darker-red central disc.
In 1806, Lewis and Clark collected a perennial Gaillardia in Montana. Later named Gaillardia aristata by Frederick Pursh, this 30-inch plant was bigger in all its parts than G. pulchella. (The species aristata refers to the bristle-like awn on the disc florets.) Its fringed flowers are variable, with some in yellow, and others in the same pattern of reds and yellows found in annual blanket flower, but blooms can be 4 inches wide. Scottish explorer/botanist David Douglas gathered seeds from the same species in 1825 and sent them back to Britain. Both these species—the annual G. pulchella and the perennial G. aristata—were growing in the same Belgian garden when, in about 1857, horticultural lightning struck: they cross pollinated and produced Gaillardia x grandiflora. It has the best characteristics of both parents: large flowers; a perennial growth pattern; tolerance to heat, drought and poor soil; generally excellent cold tolerance; and natural resistance to insects and disease. The compact varieties also stand well on their own, so they don’t have to be staked.
Flowers and leaves
Gaillardias are composites, with each daisy comprising lots of smaller flowers. Those smaller blooms are of two types: tiny disc flowers (florets) that cover the central disc, and sterile ray flowers that make a kind of halo around the central disc. The rays come in two forms: most often they look like long, slim, flat petals, but they can also take the form of trumpets. The flower head itself can have the look of a single or a double flower, depending upon its structure. Those with a single look have classic daisy form, like a child’s drawing of a sunflower. In the doubles, the central disc is crowded with trumpet-shaped, five-petaled flowers.
Because each flower head grows on its own stem and lasts long, all Gaillardias make great cut flowers. Just be prepared to stake the tall ones so they don’t flop.
Gaillardia leaves contain organic compounds called lactones that can cause contact dermatitis. If you’re susceptible, you’ll develop a rash after handling the leaves; if you’re concerned about that possibility, wear gloves when you handle the plants.
On the other side of the coin, Gaillardia pulchella contains gaillardin, which has caught the attention of cancer researchers for its tumor-fighting qualities; and the root of Gaillardia aristata contains an anesthetic used to fight toothache.
Pure native species such as G. aristata and G. pulchella often turn up in wildflower seed mixes. They’re well suited to pocket prairies, dry meadows and low-maintenance verges. But for garden use, most gardeners use some form of Gaillardia x grandiflora.
Gaillardias are unparalleled companions to ornamental grasses that are the same height or shorter, and you don’t need many to make an impact. They also work well as bright, long-flowering fillers in young shrub beds. As the shrubs mature, they’ll replace these short-lived perennials when their time is up. In borders, mass single varieties of compact Gaillardias along the front, or plant taller ones in bold groups separated from other flowering perennials by plants that have gray foliage or blue or white flowers, which provide a cooling buffer between hot-colored Gaillardia flowers and their neighbors. Use cool-colored plants as companions for containerized Gaillardias too.
Species and varieties
Most of the following Gaillardias are easy to find at retail nurseries and from mail-order sources. Mature plant sizes can vary quite a bit in either direction depending upon growing conditions.
Gaillardia aristata is a robust, large-flowered perennial with yellow rays that are often red-orange at the base; the central disc is usually red-orange too. Its most popular form for many years was ‘Maxima Aurea’, which has yellow rays and a darker yellow disc. It grows about 20 inches high and wide. The Sunrita series has given the species new life with its more compact size (18 inches tall) and 3- to 4-inch flowers. Look for Sunrita ‘Burgundy’ (red, barely tipped with yellow), ‘Scarlet Halo’ (classic red with yellow tips and a dark center) and the beautiful pure ‘Yellow’.
Gaillardia x grandiflora (blanket flower) can grow a yard tall. As beautiful as it is, it tends to flop without support, so its named varieties are better choices. Breeding is going in several directions: toward smaller plants whose flowers don’t flop, toward solid colors, toward single flowers with trumpet-shaped rays and toward double flowers.
The following group includes examples of traditional Gaillardia x grandiflora flowers with flat rays.
- The Lunar series grows just 8 to 10 inches tall. ‘Harvest Moon’ has yellow rays with red base and central disc, while ‘Two Moon’ is red with yellow tips.
- Plants in the foot-tall Arizona series were All-America Selections twice: ‘Arizona Sun’, with its red and yellow flowers, won in 2005, while yellow-tipped, soft-orange ‘Arizona Apricot’ won in 2011.
- The Gallo series comes in solids (‘Gallo Red’, ‘Gallo Yellow’) and two-toned versions such as ‘Gallo Fire’ (red with yellow tips and a dark red center) and ‘Gallo Peach’ (peach center and rays, yellow tips). They have extra large flowers on foot-tall plants.
- ‘Kobold’ (‘Goblin’) comes in at around 13 inches. It’s an old standard, with yellow-tipped red flowers. ‘Goldkobold’ (‘Golden Goblin’) is an all-yellow version.
- The Sunset dwarf series makes 14-inch mounds of colorfast flowers, including ‘Sunset Cutie’ (bronzy red with cream border), ‘Sunset Flash’ (red-orange with yellow tips) and ‘Sunset Snappy’ (purple pink rays with cream-yellow tips).
- Sunset medium varieties are just a couple of inches taller and come in a variety of bicolors. There’s ‘Sunset Candy’ (pink, cream border), ‘Sunset Mexican’ (yellow rays with pink base), ‘Sunset Popsy’ (deep pink, cream-yellow tips), ‘Sunset Spice’ (red orange, yellow tips) and ‘Sunset Sunrise’ (yellow rays, orange bases, red-orange centers). Rays come in double rows.
- Plants in the Mesa series are barely taller and have a neat, mounded form. ‘Mesa Yellow’ was a 2010 All-America Selection. ‘Mesa Peach’ (gold tips, peach rays, red-orange center) and ‘Mesa Bicolor’ (classic red and yellow) are also excellent.
Single-flowered Gaillardias with trumpet-shaped rays are becoming more common. ‘Oranges and Lemons’ (orange trumpets, yellow tips) is mid sized, while Galya ‘Corneto Flame’ (red trumpets, yellow tips) and ‘Corneto Yellow’ are about 18 inches tall. Fanfare series Gaillardias are taller yet, and can flower year round in the mildest climates. Look for ‘Fanfare’ (scarlet trumpets, yellow tips), ‘Fanfare Blaze’ (orange trumpets, yellow tips), ‘Fanfare Citronella’ (yellow trumpets, red disc) and ‘Fanfare Regal’ (red trumpets, yellow disc).
The Galya line has also produced several doubles, including ‘Amber Spark’ (red, yellow tips), ‘Coral Spark’ (coral, cream tips) and pink, red and yellow solids. The breeder says these are not as hardy as most Gaillardias; don’t expect them to overwinter below 10° F.
Gaillardia pulchella (Indian blanket, firewheels) can grow a yard tall, and carry 2-inch, yellow-tipped, red, or yellow flowers with dark purple disc florets. These tend to flop without support, so get named varieties. They grow quickly, flowering just three months after sowing.
Most Gaillardia pulchella breeding has been with double flowers on smaller plants. ‘Red Plume’, which grows about 17 inches high and wide, was the first of these to become an All-America Selections Winner (1991). ‘Yellow Plume’ followed. In 2003, ‘Sundance Bicolor’ became an All-America Selections Winner with its yellow-tipped, red, fully double flowers. ‘Sundance Red’ followed that.
How to grow them
All gaillardias need full sun, good air circulation, and light, fast-draining soil. In heavier soil, they rarely survive winter. If you’re stuck with clay or clay-loam garden soil, you can still grow Gaillardias on berms of lighter topsoil, or in containers.
Gaillardias bloom from June through frost. Flowering is so long and heavy that plants literally bloom themselves into premature death. The average lifespan for Gaillardia x grandiflora is two years, though they can live twice that long in perfect conditions. You can get the most out of plants by nipping flowers off as they fade. Climate adaptability is wide. Annual Gaillardia can be grown virtually anywhere, and perennial G. aristata and G. x grandiflora can handle up to -40° F with snow, mulch or brush cover to protect crowns. Without crown protection, most will take -20° F.
Though most named varieties of Gaillardia are grown from nursery plants, several kinds can be easily started from seed—so easily, in fact, that they often self sow. Just scatter them on the weeded garden soil where you want them to grow. Don’t cover the seeds, since light promotes germination; just rough up the soil with a bow rake before you sow. Perennial types sown early usually flower the same year, but to be certain of that, sow indoors about six weeks before last spring frost; they take four to five months from sowing to flower. If you use a heating pad to keep the planting medium at about 70° F, germination usually takes two to three weeks. If you’re starting these in a room without a great deal of sunlight, hang a pair of fluorescent lights a few inches above the flats.
Insects and diseases
Butterflies and native bees love Gaillardias, and the larvae of lepidopteran insects (like blanket flower moth) depend on them, but not to a point that does serious damage to the flowers. Deer and rabbits usually avoid Gaillardia.
The genus has few insect or disease problems, though they can get aster yellows, fungal leaf spot diseases or powdery mildew. These are not likely to be problems, however, in sunny locations with good air circulation and fast-draining soil.