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.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).