American Native Gaillardia, Blanket Flower

Gaillardias are beautiful red and yellow daisy-like flowers.

I long ago recognized the flowers, but the name wouldn’t stick. Gaillardia isn’t memorable. Their common name, blanket flower, Indian blanket flower, or Indian blanket, should be easily learned, except that a pinwheel-shaped red and yellow flower did not remind me of a blanket.

Blanket flowers are native across North America. In 1788, the annual, eastern species, Gaillardia pulchella, was the first to be given a scientific name. The name, Gaillardia, honors Antoine Rene Gaillard de Charentoneau (c. 1720-1789), a French magistrate and amateur botanist. French colonists sent him seeds of G. pulchella and other New World plants, which he grew and shared. Lewis and Clark collected the first perennial Gaillardia aristate, for science, in Montana in 1806. Growing together in a garden in Belgium in the 1850s, these two plants crossed, to form our common garden blanket flower, Gaillardia xgrandiflora.

The species epithets for cultivated gaillardias, grandiflora, aristata, aestivalis, and pulchella, mean “large flower”, “bristly” (referring to fuzzy hairs all over the plant), “summer” (when it flowers), and “pretty,” respectively. You will see Gaillardia grandiflora written Gaillardia xgrandiflora. The “x” stands for hybrid (x as in cross).

The traditional story of the name blanket flower is that it looked like the blankets Indians wore. During westward expansion, colonists traded blankets for information, food, and furs. Native Americans generally chose mixed reds and yellow blankets over solids. To frontiersmen, the bright reds and yellows of gaillardias looked like the Indian blankets, hence the name.

But there are other possible origins of the name. One is that, blanket flowers can be so abundant that they cover the prairie “like a blanket.”

Finally, there is a Native American explanation. A weaver of great skill and renown wove his own burial blanket, in his beloved reds and yellows, knowing it would be his final gift to the Great Spirit. When he died, his grieving family buried him in the beautiful blanket. The Great Spirit was pleased by the blanket but saddened that no one would see it. So the Great Spirit shared the gift; in the spring following the great weaver’s death, wildflowers in the pattern of the blanket—blanket flowers—appeared in profusion on the grave, to spread and share the glorious patterns and colors ever after.

Any or all of those could be real origin of the name.

Native Plants

Gaillardia has eleven or twelve species in North America and another six or seven in South America. While the most common blanket flowers for sale are varieties of Gaillardia xgrandiflora, you can also buy the native perennial Gaillardia aristate (hardy from USDA Zones 4-9), the annual G. pulcella, native to the eastern U.S (USDA Zones 3-8) and the lanceleaf blanket flower, G. aestivalis, a tender perennial, native across the southern U.S. (USDA Zones 5-9). All of these have similar flowers and requirements and interesting small differences; consider the details when choosing which to plant.

Garden blanket flower, G. xgrandiflora, dominates as the cultivated blanket flower. It has the perennial lifespan of G. aristate and the fast growth and long flowering period of G. pulchella. It is tetraploid, with four copies of each chromosome. Hybrids between species of plants are often infertile because the genes of the two parents don’t match when forming egg and sperm (at meiosis). In plants, doubling all the chromosomes restores fertility because the doubled chromosomes pair nicely. Tetraploids generally have bigger cells to accommodate all those chromosomes. Bigger cells form bigger flowers and leaves, very appealing to gardeners. Varieties of Gaillardia xgrandiflora grow four feet tall and have flower heads four inches in diameter. Garden blanket flower is hardy from USDA Zones 3 - 11.

In 250 years, many varieties of blanket flower, especially garden blanket flower, have been produced, in colors from all red to all gold to very yellow, and combinations. Most petals are flat with three-toothed tips, but there are also double varieties, and petals that curl to look like hooks. Like other plants in the daisy family, blanket flower flowers are actually flower heads (inflorescences), made of a group of flowers in the center without petals, the disc florets, surrounded by ray florets each of which has a very large single petal. In blanket flowers, the ray florets are sterile, and the disc florets produce all the seeds.

Blanket flowers are very easy to grow, whether transplanted or seeded. They will bloom the first year, flowering from late spring until frost. Heat- and drought-tolerant, they look good even in hot, dry periods. When the petals fall off, the seed head that remains is round and orangy, quite attractive, staying that way into the fall.

Blanket flower leaves are generally lance-shaped, three to six inches long, bright to gray green, depending on the variety. Most varieties are about three feet tall, but there are dwarf varieties. Perennial gaillardias form compact mounds. Plant widths range from twelve to eighteen inches. Blanket flowers flourish in full sun and are not very tolerant of shade. They are water-efficient, some varieties very drought-tolerant, others described as needing moderate water. For the best results, pay attention to differences between varieties.

They grow nicely in normal to loamy soils, and surprisingly well in poor and sandy soils. They may be disappointing in heavy clay soils. Good drainage is crucial.

Blanket flowers make excellent cut flowers which can last two weeks after cutting. They are gorgeous in a vase!

Where to Plant

Gaillardias are dramatic flowers in big beds, along borders, rock gardens, cottage-style gardens, and naturalized in prairies and meadows. They are reliable xeriscape (low water) plants. They flower abundantly in containers. The shorter varieties form lovely ground covers. What they do require is full sun; plants will not flower without at least six hours of sunlight.

How to Plant

Blanket flowers are enticing in pots. Once removed from packaging, the plants can be easily transplanted into the yard. Planting in late spring is best. Cut off flowers before transplanting, so the plant puts its energy into growing roots. (Put the flowers in a vase). The plants quickly start to bloom again.

To transplant, dig a hole an inch larger than the pot in all directions. Remove the plant from the pot. (Destroy the pot rather than damage the plant!) Gently pull apart the root ball to stimulate root growth. If the soil is poor, add compost or fertilizer, but blanket flowers do not need supplements in normal soils. Set the plant in the hole so the soil surface from the pot is level with the ground. Fill around it with soil. Pat down lightly but firmly. Water thoroughly. Keep it from drying out during the first few months.

Most blanket flowers can be grown from seed. Seeds don’t need special treatment to geminate but germination can be unpredictable. Start seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last frost, or sow directly into the garden after the last frost. Cover the seeds very shallowly with soil or mulch; the seeds germinate better if they get some light. Transplant seedlings outdoors after the last frost. Space plants twelve to eighteen inches apart, depending on the variety and whether you want a mass of flowers or to see individual clumps.

Maintenance

These plants are very low maintenance. They will continue to bloom all summer if you remove old flowerheads. Cutting the plants back after the first burst of bloom, not just removing old flowers, will stimulate flowering. They don’t live long–under 10 years—so you won’t have to thin them, just replace them if spring comes and the blanket flowers don’t reappear.

Be judicious about adding fertilizer. It can lead to leggy plants that flop over.

Problems

In dry and normal soils, blanket flowers have few pests or diseases. If too moist, though, they can develop root rot or diseases such as powdery mildew, the virus-like aster yellows, and leaf spots (caused by fungi or bacteria). Where possible, solve this by moving the plants or drying their site.

Gaillardia and Wildlife

The dramatic flowers attract butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. The seeds are eaten by many songbirds, especially goldfinches.

Blanket flowers host native moths in the genus Schinia (family Noctuidae). The caterpillars eat the leaves but rarely do significant damage. Some Schinia species are moth-brown, but at least two, the blanket flower moth (Schinia masoni) and the painted schinia moth (Schinia volupia), have red and white wings and a fuzzy-looking orange head and thorax. They seem very visible, but they are wonderfully camouflaged on the equally bright blanket flowers. The blanket flower moth reportedly can be found only on Gaillardia aristate and the painted schinia only on Gaillardia pulchella. I could not definitively find whether either or both feed on G. xgrandiflora. Look carefully; you might see these beautiful moths.

Two attractive butterflies, the common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) and checkerspot butterflies (Euphydryas) also use the blanket flowers as a host plant.

Blanket flowers resist both rabbits and deer; these animals nibble but almost never eat very much, and the plants quickly grow back.

The Kiowa thought blanket flowers brought good luck. They are handsome, colorful, easy-to-grow plants that always make me smile.

About the author: Kathy Keeler has gardened more than 65 years, in New York, Ohio, California, Nebraska, and Colorado; each with its joys and failures. She has a B.S. in biology from the University of Michigan, a Ph. D. in genetics from the University of California, Berkeley, and for 31 years studied plants as professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In retirement, she traveled, saw wonderful plants, and now writes the blog AWanderingBotanist.com to share plant stories.