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Plant of the Month: Gaillardia Torch Series

Torch Red Embers and Torch Yellow

Gaillardia pulchella ‘Torch’ series

Scientific name: Gaillardia pulchella ‘Torch’ series
Common name: blanket flower or pinwheel flower
Hardiness degree: summer annual
Blooming Season: summer-through fall
Plant habit: rounded
Characteristics: attracts butterflies, deer resistant, drought tolerant, attracts hummingbirds, heat tolerant
Spacing: 18-24" 
Height: 20-24"
Width: 12-18" 
Exposure: full sun
Uses: cut flower, landscape, small container
Soil: well drained
Water usage: low

I grew up in Texas, and it’s a sure sign to me that summer is coming when I see gaillardia, or what is commonly called “blanket flower,” covering the prairies and pastures of Texas. This flower, along with bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush, are ingrained into all Texans as part of the roadside tapestry of our state. But why, oh why, won’t all those lovely new gaillardia varieties in the plant catalogs do well in our gardens?

I have been truly disappointed when it comes to commercially available varieties of gaillardia. Dozens of cultivars exist with double or single flowers in every shade of red, yellow, or orange imaginable, but every one I’ve tested has flowered only for a very short period of time or immediately died from powdery mildew.  How could our roadside wildflower outperform these supposedly “improved” cultivars? I was about to write the whole genus off as a failure in Texas gardens when I discovered some information that explained what the problem might be. It seems that almost all commercially grown gaillardia are a hybrid of G. pulchella (from Mexico and the South) with G. aristata (from more northern areas of the U.S.) These hybrids are sold as Gaillardia x grandiflora. Our native G. pulchella gives the hybrids heat and drought tolerance and resistance to powdery mildew, and G. aristata lends cold hardiness. Well, I could care less about cold hardiness if the plant won’t live and bloom through the summer. So I went on a search for new varieties that were pure G. pulchella. That is when I ran across the gaillardia ‘Torch’ series from Ball Horticulture.

This series is a selection of our Texas native G. pulchella, and it changed my mind about the whole genus. Here was a gaillardia worthy of my "FlameProof" Award. The ‘Torch’ series has fully double flowers about 2 inches across, and is available in two colors, ‘Torch Yellow’ and ‘Torch Red Embers’. It forms neat, 2-foot-wide mounds of soft foliage and continually produces flowers until first frost. Not only is it heat and mildew tolerant, but it flowers constantly through the summer into fall. This plant fits wonderfully into “WaterWise” or “SmartScape” gardening, since it doesn’t need much water to keep growing and flowering.

Now read carefully here. I’m going to share something that you really need to know: these gaillardia are not perennials. I don’t care what the label says or what the plant catalog says, all those new gaillardia varieties are really just reseeding annuals for us Texans. The ‘Torch’ series, like the others, will reseed for us and occasionally over-winter for one year, but they are not true perennials. Enjoy them as summer-flowering annuals and take any extra plants as a free gift. Make sure to plant them in full sun and in well-drained soil.

‘Torch’ gaillardia looks great planted as masses of color or as individuals in containers. I like to mix the two colors for really bright color, and combine them with other heat-loving summer annuals like ‘New Gold’ lantana and red pentas.

I’m passing the “Torch” to you! So try some in your garden this summer!

About the author: Jimmy Turner is the director of horticulture research at the Dallas Arboretum.

Jimmy invites e-gardens readers to attend the Dallas Arboretum’s 5th Annual Plant Sale the weekend of April 18-20, when the green-thumbed public gets a chance to select from among 23,000 plants proven to thrive in North Texas. The weekend also offers Jimmy’s much-in-demand presentation, “Long Star Greats: Tough Texas Plants” (Friday afternoon, $20 members/$22 non-members).