Though lots of flowers in the front garden are still revving up for their summer showings, these wonderfully cheerful little guys have already started their engines and are well on the way to their usual summer-long bloom season. Though they may be a rather humble native wildflower in these parts, (the commonly called Indian) Blanket Flowers (Gaillardia aristata) make a wonderfully showy and carefree addition to practically any garden.
They have a lot going for them: they're incredibly tolerant of drought and poor soil conditions (in which they positively thrive), they bloom practically non-stop from May till frost, and they naturalize freely (almost too much so at times) even under the harshest of conditions. Oh, and they're bee and butterfly magnets as well! The fact that they're incredibly pretty is just a bonus ... I started with a packet of seeds about six years or so ago and every example of this flower to be found in the various areas of our garden descends from that original pack of seeds. To my mind, there's no easier perennial to start in your garden from seeds and given just a minimum amount of attention the first year (e.g. good sun and regular waterings), they'll happily start popping up all over the place ... we've even had them grow in the cracks of the driveway and sidewalk. As such an eager naturalizer, it's probably best to decide what areas you want them to populate in case they get a bit too rambunctious ... but in the years we've grown them, we've never had a problem with giving extra ones away to other gardeners, because they are that easy to get to thrive in truly poor conditions. A few years back I felt they were getting a bit too enthusiastic and decided that I wanted to keep them relatively confined to an area along the sidewalk, so I just dug up all the "inconvenient" ones and gave them away. Now I almost wish I had been a bit less harsh on them, so I'm just letting them grow at will at this point so they can rebuild their presence in other places.
Gaillardia is incredibly hardy, and will grow happily from Zones 3-8, which makes them an attractive choice for a wide range of gardening conditions. All they ask is for a generous amount of sun, preferably a poorish soil (they will even grow in sand!), some room to spread and a little extra attention when you are getting them established. They will bloom profusely all summer long and respond well to deadheading (if you can keep up with them!), but if you don't have the time, they will still reward you amply for your efforts. They also self-seed with a vengeance, so if you're worried about them spreading too rapidly, deadheading is a must in that situation. The seed heads remind me a lot of the dandelion's tactic... they form dense clusters of seeds, each with its own little cottony tuft on the top of a little triangular seed that resembles an arrowhead. As such, they are easily carried by the wind, and when they fall, they naturally point right into the ground where they will likely sprout the following season. I've always thought they had an ingenious seeding strategy, which accounts for their easy dispersal and propensity to populate areas far away from the parent plant.
For those who (like us) prefer to include as many native plants as possible in the garden, Gaillardia is a must have plant that blends well with ornamental grasses, Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), Mallows, and other prairie natives. This particular clump has some large purple clover (which just moved in from somewhere) as a companion, and the two look really natural together. And if you're a fan of photographing bees and butterflies, you'll never want for occasions to find one or the other feeding or taking a rest on a blanket flower, as they're very popular destinations for both insects.
In recent years, Gaillardia seems to have undergone a resurgence of interest among gardeners and many new hybrids have been introduced just in the last couple of years. I've not grown any of the newer hybrids (and there are some stunning examples among them!), preferring to stay as close to the native as possible, but I may branch out a bit in the future, just to give them a try. Though I can't confirm it myself, I suspect that the more hybridized versions are probably less prone to overspreading their bounds, as many hybrid cultivars tend to be less aggressive than their breeding stock. In any case, just pick up any good seed or plant catalogue and take a look... you'll find that Gaillardia comes in a wide array of colour combinations and there's sure to be one to your liking. For now though, I'm sticking with the tried and true Gaillardia aristata, which exhibits an amazing degree of variation itself from flower to flower. Oh, and yes, they make a durable cut flower in the vase as well. I often combine them with Zinnias later in the summer, which is a wonderful combination of flower types and range of pure fire colours.