• Fire on the Prairie: Growing Blanket Flower from Seed

August 28, 2018

We love to feature wildflowers native to North America, especially those displaying such dramatic colors as blanket flower. Crimson centers edged by bright, sunshine yellow match the spectacular sunsets of the Plains and the fierce prairie fires that were once part of the natural cycle of renewal.

Before western expansion, the Great Plains were an untamed territory and Gaillardia aristata remained wild. In the 1800s, North Americans moved west to claim land and seek fortune. When they discovered blanket flower, they tamed it too, cultivating it in homestead gardens, mining town window boxes, and sending across the ocean to appease the fascination Europeans had with all things American.

A few plants from central North America have, in fewer than 300 years, become garden stars. One is the blanket flower, Gaillardia.

— Kathleen Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

For more than two centuries, gardeners have cultivated hybrids from among several types of Gaillardia but few are as hardy and brilliant as the originals. Gaillardia aristata is among those, and we're proud to offer them as part of the Seed Needs catalog.

What's In a Name?

Members of the Gaillardia genus likely received their common name from the way blanket flowers would cover the prairies in the summertime, but it's also thought to be named for the bright, hand-woven blankets created by First Nation people.

Botanists honored the 18th-century French magistrate, M. Gaillard de Charentonneau, by naming the genus for him; Gaillard was an amateur botanist and a supporter of botanical science.

Gardeners refer to Gaillardia aristata as common gaillardia, brown-eyed Susan, or great blanket flower. Sometimes, blanket flower is written as two separate words, or it may be hyphenated. If you've had too much caffeine, you can just write (or say) blanketflower. Just don't confuse blanket flower with basket flower...not that we're saying you would.

Blanket Flower in the Garden

Blanket flower is a member of the aster (Asteraceae) family. Similar to daisies, sunflowers, chamomile, cosmos, and many other recognizable—if not iconic—favorites, blanket flower has what are called compound flower heads. The disc-shaped center of what we recognize as the "flower" actually contains hundreds of individual blooms, each producing a single seed at the end of the season. The petals radiating from the center are themselves, separate flowers.

Blanket flowers may be solid yellow, gold, or red, but our variety is a bi-colored flower, with varying shades of orange and crimson fringed with bright yellow. The centers are often echoed with these colors in reverse: Deep red edges fading to orange, with a spot of sunshine in the middle. Sort of like a bullseye for the butterflies that adore these flowers.

Blanket flower is one of those plants that grow best with consistent moisture and enriched soils but evolved to tough it out and show off their colors in bleaker garden environments. They dress up barren lots or garden margins, fire up xeriscape landscape designs, and thrive anywhere they receive full sun. Under optimal conditions, blanket flowers bloom from spring until fall, so go ahead and tame these wild beauties with a little love and indulgence.

USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 10

Sunlight Requirements: We strongly recommend full sun for Gaillardia. Too much shade will cause them to become spindly and tipsy.

Water Requirements: For best results, keep young plants evenly moist—but not soggy—until they're established. Intermittent waterings are all they need, but they won't complain if they're kept within the boundaries of your regularly irrigated garden zones.

Soil Requirements: Gaillardia aristata evolved to thrive in rocky, gravelly, or sandy soil, but compost-rich, well-drained substrate will ensure the best bloom potential. Shoot for a neutral or slightly alkaline pH.

Flowers: We've already covered blanket flower's explosive colors, so all that's left to say is that they can reach 2" to 4" in diameter. Aside from the "bump" where the flower head meets the stem, they're flat, with the potential to act as coasters for a bottle of beer, or maybe a highball glass.

Foliage: Blanket flower's leaves are restricted to its clumping base, leaving the long stems free of foliage. The basal leaves are spear-shaped and sometimes lobed. They're a medium green in color, often described as gray-green.

Pests and Diseases: Blanket flowers are deer-resistant, and as long as they're kept out of the shade, they're not susceptible to powdery mildew. Overwatering in less-than-porous soil may cause crown rot since these plants evolved to live in rocky, gravelly, arid environments.

If you see a few aphids on the plant stem, use your favorite insecticide. Aphids carry a virus called "aster yellows" known to affect members Asteraceae family but otherwise, blanket flowers aren't prone to pest issues.

Maintenance: Blanket flower is known to live only a few years, but you can extend a plant's life with the following tricks:

  • Reduce fall flowering by deadheading fading blooms and pinching back some of the buds. This will help the plant store energy for the winter.
  • When the flowering ends or tapers off, cut the plants to about 6", and put compost (then mulch) around the base, avoiding the stem itself.
  • Divide the plants every 2 to 3 years.

Blanket flower will readily reseed themselves if you let them, replacing their stock. Since G. aristata is not a hybrid, it will reproduce true to its species.  

Harvesting and Using Blanket Flower

Take a container of water with you when you go out to harvest any of your favorite cut flowers. Snip off longer stems than you think you need, removing any leaves at the stem bottoms, and place them in water. Once you've gathered your booty, re-cut the stems at an angle under running water, and immediately place them in a vase of lukewarm water treated with your preferred floral preservative.

If you love attracting wild songbirds to your garden, hang spent flower heads upside-down to dry (either outside or in a well-ventilated spot in your home). Save your blanket flower seeds to add to winter feeders by tying a square of fine cloth over the heads, or nylon stockings, if you haven't sworn them off. Once the flower heads are completely dried (check for mold) shake them into the cloth, and save them in an airtight container.

Outdoor-dried flowers will become targets for small birds, including goldfinches.

Is Blanket Flower Safe Around Pets and Kids?

The University of California places the blanket flower in the same category as chamomile, asparagus, alder, and many of its Gaillardia cousins. In short, the sap or juices from blanket flower can cause irritation to the skin or mucous membranes, with a relative few people or pets experiencing significant pain or swelling. To be safe, wash your hands after handling or harvesting any garden plants, and avoid sticking your fingers in your eyes or up your nose in the meantime. (Other orifices do apply, but as we keep trying to convince you...we're a family-friendly outfit here.)

Growing Blanket Flower from Seed

We recommend direct-sowing blanket flowers or waiting until they're about 6" tall before you transplant them. They make excellent container plants and eye-catching specimens for nursery operators (just as they do for cut flower market gardeners.)

Blanket flowers, when they're grown under optimal conditions, lend well to successive planting. They might not do as well at the height of summer without careful watering, but you can plant them up until midsummer for a boost on blooms the following spring.

These perennials may not bloom their first season when they're spring-sown.

Seed Preparation: None required.

Starting Indoors: Start indoors as early as 8 weeks before the last frost. Once they reach 6" in height, harden them off before planting them in their "forever home."

Direct Sowing: Direct sow your blanket flower seeds as soon as all danger of frost has passed.

Seed Depth: No more than 1/8"! Gaillardia aristata seeds require sunlight to germinate. Gently press them into clump-free soil, or use the "scatter and thin" method.

Seed Spacing: 16" to 18".

Days to Germination: 10 to 20 at 70°F to 75°F. Even with fresh blanket flower seeds, they can have a low germination rate, so we recommend planting 3 to 4 seeds per spot for best results.

We've Got You Covered. Like a Blanket...er...Flower.

Yeah, that was lame. But guess what's even lamer? Spending time, money, and effort preparing a garden area, then seeing all your hard work bomb out because you planted manky old seeds or seeds that were incorrectly harvested and stored.

Seed Needs uses reputable seed producers who collect seeds at the peak of their maturity, from disease-resistant, hardy, productive stock. We keep our seeds in climate-controlled storage until they're ready to ship, and they're hand-packaged by living, breathing human beings (paid living wages, though our kids might dispute that when they're helping out...and we may dispute that they're actually human).

All of these quality assurance steps increase the likelihood that you end up with more viable seeds and a higher germination rate. That translates to a more vibrant garden with fewer trips to the local nursery to fill in the gaps with expensive starts.

It also means that any seeds you don't use this season have a greater chance of germinating next year, or the year after that, if you store them properly. Of course, many species that simply can't hold out in storage for more than two to three years. So why risk it?

Contact us if you have any questions about our products, or to find out what's up and coming for our catalog!


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