Gaillardia is a great perennial plant to cut your water bill


Whether to save money or the environment, more people today are trying to conserve water in their landscape. We all are familiar with succulents that have thick fleshy leaves and/or stems. Other plants may not look like water misers but they are.

If you’ve ever observed the native vegetation on the Outer Banks you might have noticed daisy-like basically orange flowers. Upon closer inspection these plants have leaves that resemble dandelion foliage only with a hairy surface. Flowers often have reddish centers with yellow edges, making them from a distance look orange.

These are called Gaillardia or blanket flower and they thrive in dry sandy soils. Plants bloom from mid-spring throughout much of the summer. They attain heights of about two feet. However, most specimens often are shorter, because they reside in dry places. They tolerate the dry conditions of the sandy Outer Banks, but it somewhat stunts their growth.

In our climate these plants are perennial. They have a deep taproot, which helps them survive drought. Blanket flowers are also prolific seed producers and don’t need high fertility.

Their biggest requirement is that they must have full sun for a good part of the day. I’d say six hours or more. They also will flower for a longer period of time if expired flowers are removed (deadheaded) regularly.

As prevalent as they are on the Outer Banks one might assume Gaillardias are indigenous to this area, but they aren’t. Blanket flowers are a native species to many parts of the country, particularly the western prairies. Since their introduction to our beach areas they have thrived. I’ve collected seed on a few occasions. It’s easy to grow.

According to numerous sources a gentleman named Joe Bell established patches of these sunflower relatives as far south as Ocracoke as a gesture to his wife Josephine. This was about a hundred years ago. Some people even call Gaillardia ‘Joe Bells’.

Whether that’s true or just a story doesn’t really matter to me. What does is that these flowers are a symbol of the Outer Banks to me. Their continued presence indicates they work well where drought tolerant plants are desired. Despite their proximity to water, these soils are dry.

Gaillardias also have other good points. When cut they hold up well in a vase. Plants also thrive when planted in pots. Often they will even survive our harshest temperatures when kept in outside containers over the winter.

Gaillardias also attract butterflies. Furthermore, while plants don’t require much water they also tolerate salt spray and can even be irrigated with brackish water with no ill effects. Deer generally don’t prize them either.

Blanket flowers are low maintenance. They have few problems with insect pests other than a few butterfly larvae, and they usually have few disease problems. Root rot can be a problem on wet soils and powdery mildew can be troublesome during periods of high humidity if airflow is poor. Like most perennials, weeds can overtake them too so they’re not indestructible. Considering their toughness I’m surprised they aren’t more popular in local gardens.

Gaillardia flowers peeking through a thick stand of Carolina cranesbill

Gaillardia flowers peeking through a thick stand of Carolina cranesbill

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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