The gerbera comes in a wide range of colors. Photo: bolina, depositphotos
By Larry Hodgson
The genus Gerbera includes some 30 species scattered throughout Africa, South America and Asia. They are herbaceous (nonwoody) plants, perennials in their country of origin, but only being hardy in hardiness zones 8 to 11, are unable to withstand cold winters. Therefore, they are grown as annuals or gift plants in most areas. Even in milder temperate climates where they are theoretically hardy, they often need winter protection—like a spot out of the wind and a thick mulch—when temperatures drop below freezing. You see them used as annuals even in the tropics where they could be perennials, especially in public gardens: it’s often more convenient to pull out older plants and start again with young, fresh ones than to clean the more mature ones up.
Gerberas are in the Asteraceae (formerly called Compositae) family, i.e., the daisy family, and indeed, the blooms really do look like large, colorful daisies. However, the “flower” is not really a flower. It is an “inflorescence” made up of hundreds of very small flowers. Those of the central disc are fertile and produce seeds. Those on the outer perimeter, called ray flowers, look like petals and are often called by that name. The ray flowers are sterile and serve to attract pollinators by their bright colors. Insects, and especially butterflies, also use them as a landing platform.
In gerberas, there are usually two rows of ray flowers, unlike the single row of true daisies (Leucanthemum spp.).
Hybrid gerberas have an inflorescence of 3 to 4 in (7.5 to 10 cm) in diameter, depending on the cultivar.
A Bit of History
Gerberas sold in nurseries are generally hybrids (G. × hybrida) derived largely from the species G. jamesonii, with orange flowers.
The genus name Gerbera honors the German botanist Traugott Gerber, a friend of Linnaeus, while the species name jamesonii represents Robert Jameson, a Scotsman who founded a gold mining operation in the Barberton region of Transvaal, South Africa in 1884. Noticing some pretty “daisies” near growing near the mine, he began cultivating them around his home in Durban, then donated plants to the Durban Botanical Garden.
Eventually, plants of “Jameson’s daisy” arrived at Kew Botanical Garden in England where taxonomists discovered it to be a hitherto unknown species of gerbera and named it jamesonii in honor of its discoverer.
What’s in a Name?
The gerbera is often called gerbera daisy, a name I always find rather redundant, as gerbera lone suffices. Also heard are Barberton daisy and Transvaal daisy, for the South African home range of the main species.
But how do you pronounce Gerbera? Well, if you’re mostly interested in honoring the German botanist Traugott Gerber, you’d probably want to pronounce the name with a hard g: GUR-bur-uh. However, botanical Latin insists that a g before an e should have a soft pronunciation, thus JERR-bur-uh. Both pronunciations are widely accepted and whichever one you use, you’ll have no problem making yourself understood.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, G. jamesonii was discovered by European horticulturists. At that time, “daisies” of a color other than white were unknown and it quickly became a popular greenhouse cut flower crop. They soon crossed it with another species, G. viridifolia, with cream, mauve or purple flowers and later, other species as well. This resulted in the hybrid gerbera (G. × hybrida) that we know today with all its colors: white, yellow, orange, red, pink and several bicolors. The flowers can also be single, semi-double and double, and can have normal or “spider” flowers, the latter with very narrow ray flowers.
Today, the popularity of the gerbera is such that it is the fifth most popular cut flower in the world, after the rose, carnation, chrysanthemum and tulip.
The gerbera forms a low rosette of long, deeply lobed, dark green leaves, reminiscent of dandelion leaves. The plants usually reach about 18 inches (45 cm) in height and 12 inches (30 cm), but there are also dwarf varieties half that size.
The thick, pencil-like, somewhat fuzzy, leafless flower stalks often arise several at a time straight from the center of the rosette, and flowering can continue non-stop for several months, especially if you deadhead regularly.
In the language of flowers, the gerbera symbolizes happiness.
A Multipurpose Plant
Being a home gardener, I automatically think of the gerbera as a plant I would grow, but the vast majority of gerberas in the world are not grown in home gardens, but rather raised as cut flowers. The plant is grown on a massive scale all over the planet: India, Mexico, Holland … and probably in greenhouses near you as well.
Visit any florist shop and you will always see cut flower gerberas, largely because they are available year round.
Gerberas are also increasingly offered as gift plants: potted plants designed to be offered as a gift for any occasion. Gerberas sold for that purpose rarely live long. They’re designed to catch the eye and sell quickly. The salesperson has no expectation the buyer will actually succeed with it. Indeed, since they can’t readily tolerate the dry, hot air and low light of our overheated homes, most succumb after only a few weeks. To make them last, you need to give them at least a cool location (less than 60 F°/15 °C) and good humidity. And, eventually, good light too.
Their third use—as an annual for the outdoor garden—is not as well known to gardeners, but is gaining in popularity, especially with people looking for annuals for flower arrangements.
In the ground, gerberas bloom a long time, all summer and much of fall if the summer is relatively cool. Under these circumstances, they often only stop when temperatures drop to near freezing. In areas with very hot summers, something gerberas dislike, consider sheltering them from the scorching afternoon sun and also mulching them abundantly, as that will keep the soil cooler. Often, in such a climate, they bloom in the spring, stop for the summer, then start again in the fall.
At the end of the season, you can also try to “save” the gerberas you have been growing outdoors, especially those which are already grown in individual pots and therefore easy to bring in. Do this quite late in the fall, just before the first frost. Clean the plants thoroughly to eliminate any insects that may be hiding there (read more on that here: How to Debug Your Plants… Before You Bring Them Back Indoors).
Once they’re indoors, keep your gerberas in a cold spot (45 to 50 °F/7 to 10 °C, if possible) with excellent atmospheric humidity. They need as much sun as you can give them; otherwise, supply them with a grow light. Good air circulation is also vital.
In the spring, you’ll be able to purchase trays and individual pots of gerberas in any garden center or nursery. Don’t plant them out, though, until there is no further risk of frost. Put them in rich, well-drained and rather acidic soil if possible. If areas where summers tend to be rainy, plant them with their crown raised slightly above the surrounding soil to ensure better drainage. The ideal location would in full sun much of the day, but, as mentioned, with cooling shade during the heat of the afternoon. And avoid planting them in any extremely hot location, such as near a brick wall.
Gerberas prefer slightly moist soil: water well, but allow them to almost dry out before watering again. Not to the point that the foliage wilts, but the soil shouldn’t always remain soggy either. When you water the plant, do so without wetting the foliage if possible, as that can promote the development of leaf diseases, especially powdery mildew. If you have no choice but to moisten the foliage, at least water in the morning so the foliage can dry out before dark.
If you feel that your soil is not rich enough, fertilize every two weeks with an all-purpose soluble fertilizer containing a bit of iron and manganese, as the plant is subject to deficiencies in those two elements.
Since flower production in the gerbera is stimulated when direct sunlight reaches the center of the plant, remove any leaves that cast shade on that part of the plant.
Grow Your Own Gerberas From Seed
In theory, you can produce gerberas yourself by seed. In practice, seedlings tend to be capricious and success is not guaranteed. But don’t hesitate to try anyway, especially since gerbera plants tend to be expensive and growing them from seed makes their price much more reasonable. Also, many seed companies offer packs of gerbera seed, so you should have no trouble finding material.
It’s important to start very early in the year, in January, if you want flowers at the start of the gardening season. This is far earlier than most annuals. Also, the winter sun in temperate regions is too weak for healthy seedlings. You’ll have little choice other than to start them under lights. Either a fluorescent or a LED lamp would do fine. And put the lamp on a timer set at 4 hours a day. Many of the failures people report in growing gerberas from seed stem from not starting them early enough and not giving them artificial light. So, you have been forewarned!
Once you start them early under good light, their culture is fairly straight forward.
Sow the seeds in a light potting soil that you’re premoistened so it is damp, but not soggy. Press them gently into the potting soil, but without covering them, as they need light to germinate. Spray lightly with lukewarm water to moisten the seeds and initiate germination.
Cover the tray with a transparent plastic dome and place it no so the pots are more than 18 in (45 cm) from the grow light. Some heat is needed to stimulate germination (21 to 24 °C): it may therefore be useful to place the tray on a heating mat.
Check the condition of the soil daily, spraying it with lukewarm water if it turns pale. At this stage, the soil should remain slightly damp at all times: never dry, but never soggy either.
When the seeds germinate 2 to 4 weeks later (you’ll only see small green dots in the pots at first), remove the heating mat. No extra heat is required from this point on.
About a week after germination, gradually remove the dome over 3 or 4 days to increase air circulation and acclimatize the seedlings to room conditions.
From now on, the soil should be allowed to dry out a bit before watering. This is contrary to the habits of gardeners (most seedlings like potting soil that remains moist at all times), but the gerbera is an exception to the rule: oxygen must get to the roots and that won’t happen when the soil that is always wet.
As soon as the seedling leaves start to touch, it’s time to transplant them into a larger container. Begin fertilizing at this stage as well, with an all-purpose fertilizer diluted to ¼ the recommended rate. Continue to light your plants 14 hours a day, never more. When natural day length exceeds 12 hours, starting towards the end of March, you likely won’t need artificial light anymore, but will be able place your seedlings near a sunny window or in a home greenhouse.
When there is no more risk of frost, acclimatize your seedlings, now young plants, to outdoor conditions, then transplant them into the garden or a pot outdoors. A beautiful summer of bloom will follow.
The gerbera: no, it’s not necessarily a plant for the beginner, but it is a stunning daisy that is well worth learning to grow.