Sunday, June 24, 2007

Blanket Flower

What’s blooming in the area: Catalpa, roses, cholla, prickly pear, trumpet creeper, honeysuckle, silver lace vine, lilies, Russian sage, datura, bigleaf globemallow, velvetweed, purple mat flower, milkweed, tumble mustard, pink and white bindweed, English and wooly plantain, locoweed, yellow sweet clover, goats head, Shasta daisy, golden hairy aster, paper flower, goatsbeard, native dandelion; white seeds floated through; harpoon needle grass and halberd downy chess and three-awn grass seeds attached themselves to everything that passed.
What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Miniature roses, red hot poker, golden spur columbine, coral beardtongue, hartwegii, perky Sue, fern-leaf yarrow, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan; buds on butterfly weed.

Looking east: Dr. Huey rose, coral bells, pinks, small-leaf soapwort, snow-in-summer, creeping baby’s breath, bouncing Bess, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, veronica, rockrose, winecup, hollyhock, California and Shirley poppies.

Looking south: Tamarix, sweet pea, daylily, rugosa, floribunda and Blaze roses.

Looking west: Flax, catmint, Rumanian and purple salvia, purple and white beardtongues, purple ice plant, perennial four o’clock, sea lavender; buds on Monch asters and purple coneflowers.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunia, Dahlberg daisy, marigold; plants beginning to grow and put out more flowers.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Hummingbird on coral beardtongue, geckos, bees, ants, grasshoppers, squash bug, small tan moth; white, yellow with black, and black with yellow butterflies; small, indistinguishable insects.

Weather: Hot days, evening winds, cool mornings; some days the air held fumes; some plants dying that were encouraged by wet spring but are not near water or have weak roots; others spurting with heat; last rain June 11.

Weekly update: Thursday marked mid-summer’s eve and the last of the rose-hued flowers of spring are blooming. If there are to be more flowers this summer, they must be the yellow composites of the American prairie.

Retail nurseries know this and plantsmen continually watch for tamer possibilities for small gardens and decks. It’s been years since they first introduced blanket flowers that formed low mounds skimmed by large flowers. Ernst Benary began marketing the latest, Arizona Sun, in 2005.

These tetraploid Gaillardia x grandifloras resulted from crosses between perennial arista and annual pulchella. The first, native to the northern plains, has single terminal flowers on hairy stalks that flop in good soil and long-lived taproots. The second, recognized by the western Keres speakers of Cibola county, has a longer blooming season.

Now breeders are eliminating the garish orange-red petals with yellow notched tips. Last year, Georg Uebelhart released Amber Wheels, a muted yellow aristata selection with a milk chocolate core. Rosemary Hardy patented a pastel child of Dazzler as Oranges and Lemons in 2004.

Last summer my neighbor bought some Arizona Sun and Amber Wheels. She set them more than a foot apart, which emphasized their contained habit. As summer stretched into the cool autumn and she continued feeding them, the plants doubled in size, the spaces between them shrank, and the mounds collapsed into shapeless jumbles of recumbent stems. I almost liked what they became.

Then, miraculously, they put out new leaves the end of March I was so impressed by their hardiness, I bought some special varieties myself. The existing buds on the Oranges and Lemons opened, then no more. Nothing yet from Arizona Sun. I still don’t like them very much.

When I first considered blanket flowers in 1996, the only potted variety available was Goblin, promoted as an 8"-12" dwarf. It lasted a few years, then died out. Allan Armitage blames that on the pulchella heritage. It’s one of the few plants I didn’t regret losing. It was a matter of proportions. The flowers were too large for the compact plant, and looked freakish.

Since I couldn’t buy simple, full-sized Gaillardia like my mother grew, I resorted to seeds sold as aristata. Instead of disciplined hemispheres, I whelped scraggly single stems that behaved like biennials and were probably grandiflora hybrids. If there were too many of them, the consistent shading from red to yellow seemed mechanized and strident.

I have a hard time recalling why I’m growing something that doesn't look good as a specimen or in clusters, in its native coloring or disguised for subdued suburbs. But this summer I remember. After last year’s wet summer nurtured seed and this year’s wet fostered seedlings, I have a bed filled with coreopsis, golden-spur columbine and blacked-eyed Susans, each in a self-selected area. Scattered between are blanket flowers.

Unlike roses and azaleas that need a background of green, blanket flowers require more color, dense color, denser that a single plant, denser than it can amass by itself. When it’s growing among the coreopsis, the edges diffuse into the surrounding yellows, leaving shadows. Like a baritone among the tenors or the drum below the fifes, the sheer vitality of the burnt orange transfigures the monolith yellows.

Notes: Armitage, Allan M. Herbaceous Perennial Plants, 1989.

Hardy, Rosemary. Patent application for "Gaillardia Plant Named ‘Oranges and Lemons’," 2004.

Swank, George R. The Ethnobotany of the Acoma and Laguna Indians, 1932, cited in Dan Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany on-line database.

Vickerman, Larry, collector of seed that became Amber Wheels. "A Better Gaillardia," available on-line.

Photograph: Blanket flower and coreopsis grown from seed, 10 June 2007.

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