Year of the Gaillardia – The Beauty of Blanket Flowers
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
What is a gaillardia, you may ask, if you’re a novice gardener? It is often known as blanket flower, and its daisy-like flowers come in variations of yellows, orange and reds, and combinations of these. Most commonly, the flowers are yellow with red tips. Depending on cultivar (cultivated variety), gaillardia may be a perennial, coming back each year. They’re generally short-lived (often only lasting two years), while some species are annuals.
Each year the National Garden Bureau (ngb.org) names plants of the year to feature. In addition to coleus being the annual of the year, and sweet pepper being the vegetable of the year for 2015, gaillardia (said as “gal-ARE-dee-ah”) is their pick for perennial flower of the year. More on these, and past plants of the year, can be found on their website.
The blanket flower is native to the Americas, most of the 23 species native to North America and specifically the Southwest. One legend for the common name says that it comes from a native American weaver who was quite talented. When she died her grave was strewed with these native flowers, colorful as the blankets she weaved.
The scientific name comes from a French explorer. He first described an annual species (pulchella) he found in Louisiana in 1788, naming them after the French naturalist Antoine Rene Gaillard. Other species were found in the 1800’s, including a perennial one (aristata) by Lewis and Clark in Montana. The origin of most our current hybrid cultivars (Gaillardia x grandiflora) began in a Belgian garden in 1857 when, and where, these two species crossed. These tend to be perennial, with large flowers, tolerance to heat and drought in particular, and resistance to many insects and disease.
Leaves are soft, generally hairy, strap shaped, and although with smooth edges these vary with indentations—toothed or lobed. “Lactones” are organic compounds in the leaves that may cause a skin rash in susceptible individuals so, if you’re one of these or unsure, wear gloves handling them. The plant also contains a chemical called “gaillardin” which is being researched for fighting cancerous tumor cells. An anesthetic in the roots is used for toothaches.
You often will find the native species in wildflower mixes for prairies and dry situations. In gardens, they’re good combined with ornamental grasses to add a bit of color, or as fillers in young shrub beds. In borders they can be used in groups, for spots of color, or the shorter selections along the front. Since their colors are so bold, place cooler colors such as blues and purples around them. The taller selections are good cut flowers, but may need staking.
Perhaps the most common perennial species (aristata) and selection of it is the Sunrita series. Choices include burgundy, yellow, or red with yellow tips. These plants are a compact 18 inches high, shorter than just the native species, and have flowers 3- to 4-inches wide.
Most the new selections are of the hybrid already mentioned. Some are small plants good for containers, some have single flowers and others are double. Most are about one foot tall.
In the Lunar series, Harvest Moon has yellow outer ray flowers (what you may consider petals are actually separate small flowers) with red bases. Two of the Arizona series won the All-America Selections award. Arizona Sun, a winner in 2005, has red and yellow flowers. Arizona Apricot, a winner in 2011, has soft orange flowers with yellow tips.
The Gallo series has large flowers on compact plants in solid colors of red, yellow or peach, or red with yellow tips. A couple of older and still popular selections are Kobold or Goblin with yellow-tipped red flowers, and the all yellow Golden Goblin. The Sunset series has both dwarf and medium-sized selections in various colors. The Mesa series includes the 2010 All-America Selections winner Mesa Yellow, as well as peach and bicolor forms. Then there are the single flowers of the Galya and and Fanfare series, again coming in the common colors. There also are some doubles in the Galya series.
The main annual species (pulchella) grows up to 3 feet tall, so usually needs staking. Selections of this species, though, have been bred to be much shorter– often half that height– and so won’t need staking. Most have double flowers. Two of these were All-America Selections winners—Red Plume (1991) and Sundance Bicolor (2003) with its yellow-tipped red flowers. Also in this annual species are Yellow Plume and Sundance Red.
Like most annuals, gaillardia need full sun and a well-drained soil. If they stay too wet, they may get root rots or just not survive winter. With no straw mulch or similar winter protection, the perennial selections only grow into USDA zone 5 (down to at most -20 degrees).
Most gaillardia are started, and easy to grow, from seeds. Since they take four to five months from sowing until flowering, sow them indoors 6 to 8 weeks prior to the last spring frost outdoors. Germination is quickest with a soil temperature of about 70 degrees (F) as from a heating mat.
Sunny locations with good air circulation will minimize diseases such as powdery mildew and fungal leaf spots. There are no serious insect problems with these in gardens. Rabbits and deer tend to leave these alone too. They are good for butterflies and native bees so, if you want to help pollinators, consider adding some gaillardia to your garden.
Distribution of this release is made possible by University of Vermont Extension and New England Grows–a conference providing education for industry professionals and support for Extension’s outreach efforts in horticulture.