Perennial Doesn’t Mean Eternal

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Gaillardia is beautiful, easy to grow… and very short-lived: 2 or 3 years.

If you’re tearing out your annuals because they bloom only once and replacing them with perennials “because they live forever”, you may be making a mistake. Perennials (planted in appropriate conditions, of course) do live longer than annuals (1 year) and biennials (2 years), but not always that much longer. Some perennials live only 2 or 3 years, others twice that, others a little more, but very few will still be around in 40 years! If I had to estimate the average lifespan of a perennial, I would say 7-8 years.

This is much better than an annual, but you must still be ready to replace perennials from time to time: for the most part, they are not as long-lived as woody plants (trees, shrubs and conifers) most of which will probably outlive the person who planted them.

Short-lived Perennials

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Columbine (Aquilegia) is a short-lived perennial.

There is a particular group of perennials gardeners call short-lived perennials. They’re not exactly biennial, as the latter only bloom once, the second year, then die. Short-lived perennials have the ability to bloom more than once, but often flower the first and second years before they croak. The third year remains a question mark and as for the fourth… forget it!

The problem for the novice gardener is perennials don’t come with a “I’m beautiful but short-lived” label. When a “perennial” disappears after only 2 or 3 years, the disappointed gardener feels guilty and wonders what he did wrong. Yet disappearing after 2 or 3 years is normal for these plants: it’s not your fault.

When you know in advance that a perennial is short-lived, you can take precautions to prolong its existence. For example, taking cuttings ou divisions or multiplying it by seed. If you do this every two years, your short-lived perennial can return year after year.

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Mauves (Malva spp.) are short-lived, but generally maintain themselves through self-sowing.

Many of these short-lived perennials redeem themselves, at least partly, by reseeding spontaneously. Okay, they don’t grow back exactly where you wanted them, but if you are open to the concept of an English-style mixed border, where plants mix freely, you may come to find these ephemeral beauties very interesting. And what a joy they can be for the laidback gardener: they require no care whatsoever, showing up here and there as if by magic!

Although they may not live forever, short-lived perennials still have an advantage over their long-lived cousins: they generally bloom profusely the first year you plant them (many indeed will even bloom the first year from seed if you sow them indoors in early spring), which is certainly not the case of most long-lived perennials, most of which take at least 3 years before giving their best show.

A Few Short-lived Perennials

Here is a list of perennials that are generally short-lived. Those marked with an asterisk (*) tend nevertheless to come back year after year by self-sowing.

  1. Agastache (Agastache spp.) (some species self-sow*)
  2. Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila paniculata)
  3. Blanket Flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora)*
  4. Blue vervaine (Verbena hastata)*
  5. Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrhynchium angustifolium)*
  6. Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia trilobata)*
  7. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
  8. Columbine (Aquilegia spp.)*
  9. Coral Bells (Heuchera spp.) (some cultivars are short-lived)
  10. Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis)*
  11. Delphinium (Delphinium spp.) (longer-lived in cool climates)
  12. Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) (some cultivars are short-lived)
  13. English daisy (Bellis perennis)
  14. Garden mum (Chrysanthemum x morifolium) (some newer cultivars are long-lived)
  15. Gloriosa daisy or black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)*
  16. Hybrid Tulip (Tulipa spp.)
  17. Iceland Poppy (Papaver nudicaule)
  18. Knautia (Knautia spp.)*
  19. Lupine (Lupinus x russellii)
  20. Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica)*
  21. Mauve (Malva spp.)*
  22. Orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)*
  23. Painted Daisy (Tanacetum coccineum)
  24. Perennial Flax (Linum perenne)*
  25. Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa spp.)
  26. Pinks (Dianthus spp.) (some species self-sow)*
  27. Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria)*
  28. Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum) (‘Becky’ is long-lived)
  29. Tickseed (Coreopsis grandiflora)
  30. White corydalis (Corydalis ochroleuca, now Pseudofumaria alba)*
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2015, Year of the Gaillardia

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Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Gallo Bicolour’

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.

Gaillardia aristata flowers

Gaillardia aristata

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.

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Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Fanfare’ is one of the cultivars with trumpet-shaped ray flowers.

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.

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Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Sunrita Burgundy’

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.

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Gaillardia pulchella ‘Sundance Bicolor ‘: this annual gaillardia was an All-America Selections winner in 2003.

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!