What’s a Gaillardia to do?
Rebekah Heppner, Master Gardener Volunteer Trainee
One day you are the darling of millions of wildflower lovers in Florida—looking beautiful, easily reseeding yourself, using only the tiniest bit of water and never needing fertilizer, loved by bees and butterflies alike—the next day you are included in a very dry, dense scientific article with the decidedly unsexy name “Studies in the Vascular Flora of the Southeastern United States VI.” After a hundred or so years of your being considered part of the natural landscape of Florida, a prominent botanist (Alan R. Franck) took the time to review over forty books, articles and catalogs that impact your genus—Gaillardia, dating all the way back to 1788 (really, 1788). He found some confusion over the years between you, my beloved blanket flower (pictured here in my yard) whose scientific name is Gaillardia pulchella (occasionally referred to in the older studies as Gaillardia bicolor or Gaillardia pulchella var. drummondii), and one of the other nineteen species in your genus—Gaillardia aestevalis (sometimes called Gaillardia lanceolata or Gaillardia picta).
Who wouldn’t be confused?! I read the article, at least the section about Gaillardia, which is by far the least science-y part. I’m an anthropologist, which is nothing like a botanist, but I do have experience reading dense scientific studies. Unfortunately, botanists, like most scientists, have their own lingo, which I do not speak. My best interpretation of this article is that the various names of these two Gaillardias were sometimes interchanged over the years and, at some point, someone put my dear little Blanket Flower in the Florida native column erroneously.
Still Confused? The bottom line is that our sweet Blanket Flower (aka Firewheel, Rosering blanket-flower, Indian blanket) is no longer considered a native plant in Florida. How can that be? The definition of a native plant, according to the Florida Native Plant Society is “a species occurring within the state boundaries prior to European contact, according to the best scientific and historical documentation.” Apparently, Dr. Franck’s review of the historical documentation on Gaillardia led him to conclude that Gaillardia pulchella was introduced to Florida by humans. Or maybe it escaped from some other state. There is even some mention of it going from Texas to France on its way. Quite the little traveler, our Gaillardia pulchella. But not native to Florida.
What difference does that make? The National Wildlife Federation’s website tells us this: “Native plants have formed symbiotic relationships with native wildlife over thousands of years and therefor offer the most sustainable habitat.” So—if your goal is to do the very best thing for our native wildlife, it would be better to plant Gaillardia aestevalis, which is (so far) still a Florida native plant. But who has ever even heard of Gaillardia aestevalis? Or seen it for sale anywhere? Maybe that will change now, but in my humble opinion, it is not nearly as pretty as the precious Blanket Flower. See this listing from the Florida Wildflower Federation for a picture of this scrawny, subpar version of a Gaillardia, common name lanceleaf blanket flower.
Am I going to rip my precious blanket flowers out of my pollinator garden? Not a chance. Not unless it gets moved into the invasive category, but no one is even hinting that could happen. The Florida Native Plant Society has revised its description of this flower to say that it is naturalized, which I think means it’s been here so long that it has adapted to our lovely summers. Even Dr. Franck seems to give the prettier Gaillardia, i.e. blanket flower, a break, mentioning that Gaillardia pulchella’s “services might more likely be positive in landscaped and ruderal areas already deficient in diversity and resources.” I take that to mean it is better than turfgrass! His parting concession to my favorite wildflower is that it has been “seen to be visited by native bees in experimental gardens in Florida.” I could have told him that—see my photo, that’s a native Florida sweat bee on a blanket flower at my house!
So then, what’s a Gaillardia to do?
Keep looking beautiful, and reseeding, and feeding the pollinators and making me happy. But stay out of our nature preserves and please, please, please, keep yourself in check so you don’t end up on the invasive species list!