Named after a French botany patron, M. Gaillard, gaillardia (blanket flower) has been a staple of the highway wildflower seed program for decades and is the state flower of Oklahoma. The genus has a reputation for being tough, salt tolerant, drought tolerant and deer proof. In general, the crop can be summed up, in the words of one of Florida’s theme park director as “butt hardy,” which means that the plant can handle people sitting on it and still bounce back. (In theme parks, unlike other public spaces, the average “vacationer” seems to think the ticket price includes lying, rolling or sending children into the flower bed!) Gaillardia also attracts bees, butterflies and birds, so market them accordingly for the nature-gardening public.
Like last month’s article on purslane and portulaca there are both seed and vegetative forms of gaillardia available on the market, and which cultivars you use in your operation can be adjusted for whichever means of propagation best suits you or the level of uniformity you desire in the crop. Finding gaillardia suppliers can be a bit confusing because the crop is listed under perennials, biennials and annuals, depending on which supplier you are talking to. In most regions of the United States, gaillardia is a reseeding annual, although in mild winter areas it may remain green for a year or more.
We were field trialing native plants last year, and one of our native plant specialists provided us with a native form of Gaillardia pulchella (a parent of the G. grandiflora hybrids) that received top honors for constant color and high-impact flowering. In light of last year’s trials, we are doing a focus trial on the entire genus in our field trials this year to look at how each commercial cultivar performs in comparison to the native species. This article was my way of doing my homework before we begin trialing in March.
There are about 30 cultivars on the market, but they are almost all from the hybridization of two native species. G. aristata (native to North America) and G. pulchella (native to Mexico and the Southern United States) are the parents of G. x grandiflora. G. aristata is from the high plains and gives its progeny cold hardiness, while G. pulchella provides the heat tolerance and humidity tolerance of the Sunbelt. G. pulchella also has a slightly more succulent leaf than G. aristata. For most of us, the difference between the two is probably not obvious but still kind of neat to know. If you talk to botanists, they will tell you that there are a hundred different forms of the two species floating around as well, just to keep us all confused.
Gaillardia aestivalis is a species that generally has an incomplete single flower with petals separated by large gaps around the central disc. Flowers may be white, yellow or reddish purple. Gaillardia pinnatifida is very similar to G. aestivalis with pinnate leaves. All of these species will intercross, so expect a lot of overlap in naming and growth habits.
Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Goblin’ was the standard cultivar for many years, but the actual color (red versus orange red and the red to yellow balance) varies from one cultivar to the next. The only way to know exactly what you are getting is to go vegetative and get cuttings of a superior form. The seed types, even though there is some variability, are still the economical way to grow the crop, and sometimes the variability can be a good thing at the retail level. In general, gaillardia breaks up into three groups: doubles, singles and species or novelty.
Pure red, pure yellow and bi-color forms make up the double-flowered types. Seed doubles often have a percentage of seedlings that revert to single flowers, so the cutting produced types like the Torch series, from Ball FloraPlant, eliminate the off types and give you a uniform crop. However, the Lorenziana Mix from Sahin has a lot of color forms that are really unique, so it depends on what you want to grow. Otherwise, among the doubles, there isn’t a big difference between the growth habits or flowers of the different double cultivars. Still, these plants are true show-stoppers, so they will really add to late-spring and summer sales.
In singles there is the same color breakdown, roughly, with varying degrees of red petals with yellow tips dominating the selection of single forms. The interesting stuff is in the burgundy forms, and again color varies with your environment and temperatures. Check out ‘Summer’s Kiss’ with paler apricot and gold colors.
The newest novelty is ‘Fanfare’ a single with yellow and red trumpet shaped petals; it is a totally different texture and look for gaillardia and a really strong performer from what Á I have heard. I’m looking forward to seeing it in the trials this spring. Until then, see what Paul Pilon had to say about it in the January issue of GPN.
Allan Armitage at the University of Georgia has been playing around with a couple of less common species: G. aestivalis with purple flowers and G. pinnatifida which has a different flower form, like a single daisy with missing petals. Both of these species look very promising as well. I have even seen a picture of G. aestivalis with white and purple bicolor flowers.
Either way, these plants are nearly bullet proof, or “butt hardy” if you prefer, and they have a long list of strengths no matter where you are growing in the United States. Drought tolerant, relatively disease free, deer proof, salt tolerant, great cut flower potential, a U.S. native, evidence of nematode resistance and some interesting herbal health applications as well. The best part is that gaillardia fits into most crop routines without special needs or considerations and boosts late-spring into summer sales.
If you’re hungry for more gaillardias, after last month’s “Perennial Solutions’” profile of ‘Fanfare’, here is everything you can want to know about this extremely colorful, nearly bullet-proof crop.