The Nation Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization promoting home gardening, has announced that 2015 is officially the Year of the Gaillardia. So let’s take look at this popular plant to see why it deserves such a recognition.
History and Botany
There are 23 species in the genus Gaillardia, all hailing from the New World, with the greatest concentration in the south-western United States. Most species are perennial, but there are also annuals and biennials. In general, gaillardias are native to fairly dry climates. They are often called blanket flowers for their habit of coloring fields with a blanket of color.
The genus Gaillardia was named by the French botanist Auguste Denis Fougeroux de Bondaroy from specimens received from Louisiana. He named the genus for the French naturalist René Antoine Gaillard de Charentonneau. The first gaillardia described was the species G. pulchella, an annual with red and yellow bicolor flowers.
It was during the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806 that the perennial species G. aristata was first collected in Montana. It’s a variable species, but usually with yellow flowers showing only a bit of red at their base. This is the species most widely distributed in nature and is found one across much of Western North America.
In 1857, a bit of unplanned plant sex took place between the annual species G. puchella and perennial species G. aristata in a Belgian garden where the two were being grown. The hybrid species resulting from the crossing, G. x grandiflora, produced large bicolor flowers on strong stems and has proven perfectly suited to garden conditions. It is this perennial species that usually decorates our gardens today, although the annual gaillardia (G. pulchella) does enjoy a certain popularity, particularly in wildflower mixtures.
Galliardias are known for their abundant and long-lasting bloom. Most begin to flower in June and are still blooming in September and even well into the autumn.
The “flower” of the gaillardia is in fact a composite inflorescence. The rounded central disc is covered with small fertile flowers called florets and is surrounded by much longer sterile ray flowers that form a halo. Most people mistake the ray flowers for petals. Ray flowers are usually long, slim and flat, but there are cultivars with trumpet-shaped ray flowers as well. This combination of a rounded center disc and a halo of ray flowers gives the plant a daisy-like appearance. This form is designed to attract pollinating insects, especially butterflies, who love to land on the “platform” formed by ray flowers so they can quietly sip the nectar of the numerous fertile florets of the disc.
Usually the rays are yellow at the tip with a red or orange base, giving the typical two-tone gaillardia inflorescence, but there are cultivars with entirely yellow, red or orange flowers, and even more recently gaillardias whose flowers are said to be “pink”, although they could best be described as peach or salmon.
The original form of the common perennial gaillardia (G. x grandiflora) was about 3 feet (1 m) in height, but most modern horticultural selections are much shorter than that and in fact dwarf varieties, some not more than 8 inches (20 cm) tall, are currently the most popular. The tall and medium height varieties, with their long stems, make excellent cut flowers.
The most widely cultivated annual gaillardia is G. pulchella and measures about 18 to 36 inches (45 to 90 cm) in height, depending on the selection. If the wild form had daisy-shaped bicolor flowers, in culture, double varieties seem to be preferred: they produce a globular inflorescence about 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter and come in yellow, red, orange or bicolor shades.
How to Grow Gaillardias
Galliardias prefer good drainage and can be difficult to grow in clay soils, especially if they remain soggy for long periods after a rainfall. If this sounds like your soil, it’s best to raise the flower bed by covering the clay with at least 6 inches (15 cm) of well-drained soil. The actual quality of the soil (its acidity, fertility, etc.) is of only minor importance. However, you will need full sun for this plant used to the intense sun of the Midwest. Despite the gaillardia’s well-merited reputation for being very drought tolerant, in fact, you’ll have many more blooms if you water when necessary.
Typically annual gallardias are sown directly outdoors in either the fall or early spring and their seeds then germinate when soil warms up. If you want perennial gaillardias to bloom the first year, though, it is best to sow them indoors about in March or April. Don’t cover the seeds: they need light to germinate. Of course, you can also buy plants of perennial gaillardias in just about any nursery.
Although the name “perennial gaillardia” seems to suggest a long life, in fact, gaillardias are not a very long-lived: expect 2 to 3 years of bloom, but rarely more. That’s why it’s wise to divide them every two years: each division is like a young plant. Perennial varieties are very hardy (zone 3), but nevertheless can still die in winter without the protection of a least a thin layer of snow even in zone 5. In cold climates with little snowfall, a fall mulch of straw or pine needles can help them better cope with winter conditions.
Note too the gaillardia’s tendency to bloom non-stop and in great abundance can weaken the plant: if allowed to bloom until frost, it may be “too tired” to survive the winter. Some gardeners report success by cutting the plant back to 6 inches (15 cm) high in early September. You’ll miss the last months of bloom, but this radical pruning tends to stimulate the growth of fresh young stems that overwinter better than the tired old ones.
Gaillardias are rarely affected by serious diseases or insects. The one exception is aster yellows, a disease transmitted by a leafhoppers. It causes the development of deformed greenish flowers. There is no cure for this disease: destroy any plants that are infected.
You will find a wide selection of gaillardias in both seed catalogs and local nurseries. I’ll leave it up to you to pick your favorites!