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Blanket Flowers are eco-chic, water-wise toughies, with enough flower-power to bloom all summer

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Gaillardia 'Mesa Bright Bicolour' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaGaillardia 'Mesa Bright Bicolour' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaBlanket flowers are stalwarts of the summer garden and appreciated by seasoned gardeners around the world for their resilience, extremely long blooming season, and richly coloured, daisy-like flowers in shades of yellow, orange, red, and brown, atop spreading mounds of narrow, fuzzy, grey-green leaves. Wild blanket flowers are found all across North America and southern Canada, as well as Mexico; and there are about 12 species, some with very limited ranges. Apparently its common name “blanket flower” comes not only from the plants ability to blanket the North American prairies with its gay colours, but also from a Native American legend about a man who used to make exceptional blankets; and when he died the spirits rewarded him with an ever-blooming blanket of flowers on his grave. Appropriately, the reds, oranges and yellows of these flowers are the colours on the blankets traditionally worn by Native Americans.

In its wild state, the plant thrives in some of the harshest soils and climatic conditions possible, yet still produces some of the most vibrant blossoms. Plant breeders quickly saw the blooming potential of these little plants, and the annual species, Gaillardia pulchella (Indian Blanket or Firewheel) native from the south-eastern U.S. through to Colorado, and south into Mexico, and the perennial species, Gaillardia aristata (Common Blanket Flower) from the west and northwest, were selected for crossbreeding, resulting in the outstanding and the beautiful garden hybrid, Gaillardia X grandiflora, which is the parent of most of the modern blanket flowers we grow in our gardens today.
 
Gaillardia 'Arizona Sun' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaGaillardia 'Arizona Sun' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaGaillardia 'Arizona Sun' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaGardeners fell in love with blanket flowers, and the hard work of plant breeders continues to produce outstanding new cultivars which are compact and strongly-branched, with large single or double flowers which, unlike the wild species which bloom mainly from mid-summer and into autumn, also produce flowers in spring and early summer, with a magnificent flush from mid-summer on. These low-maintenance plants are also drought and heat tolerant - what more could the modern eco-conscious gardener ask for - so do your garden a favour this summer and invest in a few blanket flowers!
   
(Gaillardia 'Mesa') is an astonishing new cultivar which is very drought tolerant once established, and produces non-fading flowers. It is a much improved version of the traditional gaillardia, producing more flowers on strong, upright, well-branched plants. It grows +-45cm tall with a spread of +-55cm, and does not ‘flop over.’ It is an award winning performer; being a 2010 All-America Selections winner, and the 2010 Fleuroselect Gold Medal Winner, Louisiana State. (Mesa Yellow) has intensely yellow flowers; (Mesa Bright Bicolour) has brilliant yellow flowers adorned with a broad red band surrounding the large brown cone; and (Mesa Red) produces unusual medium to dark red blooms.

(Gaillardia Arizona) is a brilliant hybrid which produces large blooms above its bright green foliage, and the plants have a very uniform, compact, and mounded habit, growing +-35cm tall with a 60cm spread. It is an excellent landscape performer under a wide range of conditions. Cultivars include: (Arizona 'Red Shades') which has very large rosy-red blooms; and (Arizona ‘Sun’) with its eye-catching combination of orange and red tones with bright yellow petal edges.

(Gaillardia ‘Galya’) The Gaillardia Galya Series is another award-winning selection; including the Rising Star and Flame Proof Plant awards from the Dallas Arboretum. It flowers profusely and features three different flower forms, single, double, and trumpet; in a variety of orange, yellow, and brick-red blooms. The sturdy plants grow +-30 to 60cm tall with an equal spread.

Gaillardia 'Arizona Red Shades' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaGaillardia 'Arizona Red Shades' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaGaillardia 'Arizona Red Shades' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.za(Gaillardia 'Fanfare') The flowers of this unique selection are almost lacy in appearance with their tubular orange petals with yellow tips, surrounding a large burgundy eye. It is a sturdy, compact plant that grows to about 45cm tall with an equal spread.

(Gaillardia aristata) The common blanket flower is a popular garden perennial native to the plains and Western U.S. This species was used for a variety of purposes by Native Americans, ranging from waterproofing, rawhide bags, to treating mumps, tuberculosis and cancer. It has large showy red flowers tipped with yellow, and grows +-30 to 70cm tall. Seeds are sown in early spring and plants are set out once all danger of frost has passed. Once established the plants can be propagated by division in spring.

(Gaillardia pulchella) A wide variety of cultivars have been developed from this popular summer flowering annual, and they are still available from seed companies. They have showy red flowers with a yellow outer band, and occasionally the three-cleft rays are solid orange or yellow. Varieties can be single, double, or semi-double. Seeds are easy to grow and can be started early indoors 4-6 weeks before the last spring frost, to transplant into the garden when the weather has warmed. In warm-winter areas seeds can be sown directly into garden beds in late autumn or very early spring.

Gaillardia 'Mesa Yellow' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaGaillardia 'Mesa Yellow' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaGaillardia 'Mesa Yellow' Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaIn the Garden:

If blanket flowers are planted in groups in the garden the impact of the blooming becomes even more remarkable, and if they are combined with plants that have contrasting blue flowers like lobelia, or dwarf blue agapanthus, and a splash of red from annuals like verbenas or petunias, you can add a dash of fire to your garden design; and adding white to this dazzling display will be essential to temper the overall look.

The bold flowers blend especially well with soft textured leaves like those of cosmos or airy ornamental grasses, for an informal modern look. For more contrast, try planting gaillardia with spiky plants like red hot pokers (Kniphofia,) falling stars (Crocosmia,) or daylilies  (Hemerocallis.) Blanket flowers are essential in meadow gardens, cutting gardens, and rockeries. Use them in flower borders or simply as fillers in those difficult 'hot spots.'

Even if you have a tiny garden, or perhaps a sunny balcony, a single potted specimen will brighten up any dull spot for months on end. Other good reasons for planting blanket flowers, is that butterflies and bees are drawn to these plants like magnets, and the flowers last well in a vase.

Cultivation/Propagation:

Full sun and very well-drained soil are musts for blanket flowers to thrive, and although they prefer loose sandy soil that isn't overly fertile, with a pH near neutral or slightly alkaline, they are not that fussy about pH as long as the soil drains well. They are not suited to heavy clay soils. Blanket flowers grow well throughout South Africa and will tolerate moderate frost, but in very cold winter regions they are most often planted out as summer annuals. They can take humidity, and in the warmer regions of the country are reliable short-lived perennials. Established plants are heat and drought tolerant, making them ideal for hot and dry parts of the country, but in these regions they will perform best in the garden if they can be watered moderately during prolonged dry spells.

It is not essential to cut off the dead flower heads, but doing so will keep the plants looking neater, and many gardeners agree that it does extend the blooming season. Poor soils seem to encourage more flowering than overly rich soils, so go easy on the fertiliser; but the occasional feeding to encourage repeat blooming will not harm them, and is good for potted plants.

The blanket flower is most commonly grown from purchased plants, and once the perennial varieties are established in the garden you can propagate them by division in spring.

If you are sowing seeds, you can start them early indoors, or sow directly outdoors in spring once all danger of frost is over. From seed they will take about 16 weeks to flower, however, some older varieties may not flower in their first year, so get a head start by sowing them in late summer, and protecting the young plants over the winter.

Blanket flowers can reseed and sprawl through the garden, but, because the original plants are hybrids, expect some variation in flower colours from self-seeding.

Gaillardia hybrids are easily propagated by tip cuttings taken in summer, but many of them are protected by plant breeder rights.

Pests & Diseases:

Gaillardia is virtually pest-free but aphids can become a problem. They are very susceptible to "aster yellows," also referred to as "witches’ broom." Asters yellow is an irreversible viral-like disease that causes plants to grow very abnormally, often forming a massed appearance or brush-like development of numerous weak shoots. Symptoms vary with the host plant. Plants may appear stunted, have chlorotic (yellow-white) foliage, and develop flower parts with curious abnormalities. Some plants, such as Echinacea, develop flower parts that revert to leaf forms (deformed, yellowish-green flower heads) after they are infected with Aster yellows. Additionally, Aster yellows may be expressed with upright leaves or witches broom in some plants.

Aster yellows appears on many plant species, particularly herbaceous plants like Dill, Coriander, and Parsnip; perennials like Aster, Echinacea, Gaillardia, Rudbeckia, Scabiosa, and Veronica; and weeds like Chickweed, Common Groundsel, Horseweed, Purslane, and Common Sow Thistle to name a few.  Aster yellows is documented on 40 plant families; infecting over 200 species of plants worldwide.

Aster yellows is a phytoplasma disease caused by a mycoplasma-like organism that is often mistaken for plant viruses or bacterial diseases.  Phytoplasmas are single-celled microorganisms (intermediate between bacteria and viruses) that live as parasites in the phloem of plants. Aster yellows is vectored from plant to plant by the aster leafhopper (Macrosteles quadrilineatus) and certain other leafhoppers, which can carry this disease over very long distances.

In South Africa aster yellows was first identified in the Vredendal area in 2006. Meanwhile the disease has also been recorded in the Waboomsrivier, Robertson and Montagu areas, and classified as a quarantine disease in South African vineyards. At that time only one leafhopper species, Acia lineatifrons, was known as a sporadic pest, which only attained pest status in certain years. It caused hopper burn, a condition where leaf edges dry out and the leaves fall prematurely. However, during a later survey done in vineyards infected with Aster yellows 26 leafhopper species were identified; and further studies showed that the indigenous leafhopper Mgenia fuscovaria is able to act as a vector of Aster yellows phytoplasma in grapevines.

The best strategy is to prevent Aster yellows from occurring by controling leafhopper populations, but this can be challenging as leafhoppers move into areas from adjoining fields, weeded areas, and with air currents, and by the time they are detected and controlled, it is possible that they have already transmitted the phytoplasma. There is no cure, and plants with Aster yellows should be removed and destroyed.

Management strategies should include regular scouting and using sticky cards to detect the presence of leafhoppers; and if leafhoppers are present, it is important to keep their population from reaching excessive levels by spraying regularly with contact insecticides, such as horticultural oil, and insecticidal soaps. Control weeds at all times, and immediately remove and destroy any plants with symptoms.

Find images of aster yellows here

Leafhoppers are small (less than 1cm in length), slender-bodied insects with pointed, wedge-shaped heads and large eyes. They are varying shades of greens and browns, although some species may be brightly coloured. Adults can fly, and their powerful hind legs enable them to jump distances more than 100 times their body length when disturbed. Depending on the species, leafhoppers live for anywhere between 30 and 120 days. They are generally found on branches or the underside of leaves, where they feed on the surface of the leaf, sucking the sap and leaving behind pale or brown markings, and causing young shoots to wither and die. Given the large number of species, almost every plant is a potential target, and some commercial crops affected include: apples, beans, carrots, celery, maize, onions, potatoes, peppers and tomatoes.

Due to their mobility and habit of moving to the other side of the plant when spotted, leafhoppers can be difficult to control. In the garden, organic pesticides containing pyrethrins are effective in control, as is Neem Oil and Insecticidal Soaps. These should be applied in the late morning to mid-afternoon when the leafhoppers are most active. Ensure full coverage of the plants, including the underside of the leaves.

Effective bio-control agents include: Assassin bugs, preying mantids, spiders, various beetles, lizards, and birds; and a number of parasitoids (wasps, tachinid flies) attack the eggs and developing nymphs.

It is not known exactly how many leafhopper species there are in the world. However, their family, Cicadellidae, is subdivided into 40 sub-families, and over 23000 species - more than all the birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals put together! Of that number, over 400 species are native to South Africa.

Find images of leafhoppers here

Caution:

Gaillardia is not listed as poisonous but in certain people the sap, of these plants may cause a skin rash or irritation. Wash the affected area of skin with soap and water as soon as possible after contact. The rashes may be very serious and painful.

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