Friday, 29 June 2012

Gaillardia: the Saucy Flower

It might seem a bit of a stretch from Richard the Lionheart to the humble  blanket flower, but it’s not as far as you think. Gaillardia were named after a French magistrate, Gaillard de Charentonneau. Gaillard in French can mean either “strong; lively, spritely” or else ”strapping man”. One imagines Richard himself as gaillard, but his famous castle, Chateau Gaillard, was so named because it was, in Medieval French, “saucy” since he’d built it to spite the King of France, and also because it was so stoutly built it could not be taken.

What struck me was that you could say the same  of the flowers themselves – they are certainly lively and strong, as well as being stout stalwarts of the perennial bed. Whether they’re saucy or not I’ll leave you to decide.

Gaillardia aristata
Gaillardia aristata by Matt Lavincreative commons 

One thing for certain is that they are American flowers, appearing all the way from Canada to Argentina. Most garden varieties come from gaillardia x grandifolia, a cross between the annual  g. pulchella (from Latin pulcher, beautiful) and perennial g. aristata (from Latin arist, bristle or awn). Pulchella is the red one with yellow tips to the petals, while aristata is mainly yellow, although you can sometimes see red where the petals meet the disc. It’s hard to be precise with gaillardias because they vary a great deal. This makes them easy to hybridize, but has also caused a number of new species to be announced, only to be withdrawn later.

You won’t be surprised to hear that Kelways and Robinsons were at the forefront of breeding blanket flowers:
100 years ago, the great Kelways nursery in Somerset was annually raising around 70 varieties of gaillardia and almost as many pyrethrums. It supplied off-the-peg herbaceous borders throughout the country.

The article I’m quoting from is mainly about the Hardy Plant Society’s millenium survey of its members’ favourite plants. Out of 12 000 members, only two mentioned pyrethrums or gaillardias. The Gaillardia Fairy (yes!) is having a thin time of it.

People in Britain may not be so enthusiastic about them now, but they were being grown for gardens very shortly after  the resoundingly named August-Denis Fougeroux de Bondaroy first published his paper about it, in 1786. He had been sent seeds from Louisiana, and had grown them on for two years. The Monthly Review (vol. 81) published a translated version of his description:
resembles the rudbeckia in some of its characters, and the helianthus in others; in compliment to M. Gaillard, a botanist of Charontonneau,  it is thus denominated Gaillardia (pulchella) foliis alternis lanceolatis semi-amplexantibus, floribus subsolitariis terminalibus purpureoflavis. (1789: 614)

gaillardia pulchella
Gaillardia pulchella, photo by Daniel CD, creative commons

Bondaroy’s other important contribution to science was finding out how the pigment Naples Yellow was made, which leads me to suggest crocosmia ‘Solfatare’ as a planting companion to your gaillardias – the crocosmia is named for a volcanic crater in Naples, and Bondaroy’s purpose was to disprove the assertion that Naples Yellow was a volcanic mineral. Bondaroy died in 1789, but of old age rather than the revolution.

The other half of the equation, gaillardia aristata, was first reported by Lewis and Clark, apparently on dry hills in Montana, in 1806. The story of what happened next is tangled, but it seems that when they sent the seeds of gaillardia and many other plants back, William Barton, who was supposed to catalogue them, just sat on them and did nothing. Eventually  a German botantist, Frederick Pursh, was hired to write up their notes and make drawings of the specimens, which he did.

However, he fell out with Barton over money and who was to get credit for the work, and Pursh left, taking Lewis and Clark’s notes, his drawings, and all his own work. Pursh eventually fetched up in London, where he published his Flora Americae Septentrionalis in 1814. (For more of the various twists and turns, see here, and Elliot: 179-89.) You can read the Flora online here

The Scottish horticulturalist David Douglas also found gaillardia aristata during his exploration of the Canadian and American west. He brought seeds him with him and distributed to them to members of the Horticultural Society. (He also brought back Clarkia, and the california poppy.) His path frequently overlapped Lewis and Clark's, and he too found his gaillardias in the Rockies.
It seems appropriate that Lewis and Clark should be connected to this plant, which is apparently one of three prairie pioneers, along with rudbeckia hirta and Ratibida columnifera. They are the first to colonize disturbed areas. 

All three are a cheerful yellow; but gaillardias come in many colours. Just how many may surprise you. Check out this link to Freda Cameron's blog, which shows them in red, yellow, orange - and purple! Even in the wild, they have a tendency to vary a great deal, doing all sorts of things like developing quilled or spooned petals, or being more or less bicoloured. After all, we know that Kelway had about 70 kinds. 

One of my favourites is a peachy-orange and lemon-yellow one with two rows of quilled petals, called 'Oranges and Lemons'. I used it as an edging for my "hot" borders.

Gaillardia 'Oranges and Lemons'
'Oranges and Lemons', photo by Captain-tucker, from creative commons.

 Another, similar type is 'Moxie', which gets a good review here. If you want a really dark red, there's 'Burgunder', which helpfully comes with some suggestions on what to plant with it. There are every kind of bicoloured one from almost all-red ones like 'Arizona Sun' and the shorter 'Goblin' ('Kobold') to the bright yellow 'Mesa Bright Bicolour', which has a mere ring of red around the central disc. Plant breeders have also played around with the petals, with results like 'Frenzy' where the petals have rolled themselves into tight rays.

 The double gaillardias just look strange, though.

One way to grow gaillardias is to do as William Robinson, the influential Irish gardener, suggested:
Where possible they should be grown in bold groups, for they thrive better if so placed than as solitary plants in a parched border, and no plants have a finer effect in a bed by themselves. 
 Which would certainly be striking, whether you used one colour or several together. Another idea would be to put it in a "hot" border like I did, and surround it with other orange, yellow and red plants. Heleniums would look good and echo the shape as well as the bricky-red colour, while achilleas would make substantial contrast. I would add some grasses to fountain up around them, as well. (I used panic grass in my border.) 

Another thought, especially in dryer areas, would be to set them up with other dry-landscape plants, such as agastache, salvias, and other southwestern plants. I was also inspired by a webpage showing Alberta' s native flowers, which led to thoughts of a blue, yellow and white scheme with small-flowered asters, tansy, goldenrod, bergamot and yarrow.

Freda Cameron's blog also features a stunning picture of a purple gaillardia aestevis var. winkleri 'Grape Sensation' with a matching salvia greggi 'Diane' which is a perfect piece of planting.

I think that I will give the last word on this subject to Lady Bird Johnson, who was a wildflower advocate long before ecology was a household word:
Another of my favourites would have to be the gaillardia called Indian-blanket or fire wheel (Gaillardia pulchella). The reason I like it is that it is a survivor - hardy, drought-resistant, and it thrives in poor soil. I like masses of flowers, and gaillardia makes masses. A striking tapestry of color, it can cover several acres of pasture. Another reason I like it is because it is easy to grow. You plant gaillardia and you get gaillardia, which is not the case with some of the more capricious, elusive flowers. (Johnson: 126)

Elliott, Charles, 2006: More Papers from the Potting Shed, Frances Lincoln, London.
Johnson, Lady Bird and Carlton B. Lees, 2000: Wildflowers Across America, Artabras (reprint).
Robinson, William , 1870: The wild garden or, Our groves & shruberies made beautiful by the naturalization of hardy exotic plants, Oxford University Press.

1 comment:

  1. I have always thought that a flower known as Indian Blanket, which can be grown in all of the states of the Union and which is indigenous to this hemisphere ought to be our national flower. Also, it is an informal, vernacular flower and so suited for our democratic country.