Gardens of the Cross Timbers: The ocean waves

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Beach Gaillardia

Gaillardia.  In bloom.  Right now in the Outer Banks (OBX) of North Carolina where I am staying for Thanksgiving.  The plant we know so well in Oklahoma is commonly called Indian Blanket, Blanket flower or Fire-wheel.  The tough plant can tolerate low moisture, rabbits, deer, dry soil and salt.  It is self-seeding and grows behind dunes in soft sand. The Garden Gaillardia (Gaillardia x grandiflora) is a hybrid, a cross between Gaillardia pulchella the annual and Gaillardia aristata the perennial.  Here you get the best of both worlds—bright orange, red and yellow flowers that come back year after year. The hybrids to consider: ‘Arizona Sun’ a more typical Gaillardia with long-lasting blooms which won awards in both All American Selections and the Fleuroselect Gold Medal in 2005, ’Celebration’ with totally scarlet flowers, ‘Sunset Mexican’ has two rows of petals all ending in brilliant lemon yellow, or ‘Sun Devil’ with fluted eye-catching petals on a bushy plant.

Gaillardias along the beaches are probably escapees from cultivation, but have adapted very well to the harsh coastal areas. The bright ubiquitous flowers have caught enough attention to merit additional study and Gaillardia has been included in the Invasive Species Compendium.  General background info: fifteen to seventeen species live in Mexico, North and South America.  Gaillardia pulchella is a native of Mexico and North America but has become naturalized in Europe, South Africa, the Caribbean and Central America.  The Japanese consider it invasive.  So, the Indian Blanket is considered a weed where it is not wanted, but the hardy plant has been able to adapt and thrive in some surprising areas!   

Gaillardia Patch

Gaillardia colors are similar to Native American Indian blanket color patterns, the reason for being called Indian blanket.  The variations in flowers cover a wide range: colors, patterns, and petals being single, double or semi-double with straight, frilly or wavy edges.  The striking blooms stand above the grayish-green hairy narrow leaves originating from base clumps.  The long-blooming plants are nectar factories that attract endless honey bees, native bees, butterflies, wasps and hummingbirds.  As a matter of fact, the Gaillardia made the Royal Horticulture Society’s ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ list and one of the earliest flowers planted in University of California’s ‘bee-friendly garden’ in 2015.

The 18th century French naturalist and amateur botanist Gaillard de Charentonneau was honored by having the flower named after him.  He cultivated and shared Gaillardia seeds from French colonies with other botanists.  The genus name Gaillardia was first published in 1788.  In May 1985, Oklahoma as well honored the robust plant by naming the Indian Blanket as its state wildflower.  All due to the efforts of two state representatives and Dr. Doyle McCoy.

Dr. McCoy came from the hills of Grady County.  As his education progressed from East Central University to the University of Oklahoma, he dove deeper and deeper into native plant identification.  Dr. McCoy authored five books about Oklahoma plants: A Study of Flowering Plants, Roadside Flowers of Oklahoma Volumes 1 and 2, Roadside Trees and Shrubs of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma Wildflowers.  Dr. McCoy not only offered characteristics of each plant, he included color photos to aid in identification.  My only problem has been the reclassification of plants since the publications. Botanists have been busy redefining and recategorizing many plants, but the older Latin names and common names are usually included as synonyms.  Thus, in my McCoy books are numerous updated handwritten names above his versions.  

State representatives Billy Floyd and Kelly Haney, Seminole Indian artist, sponsored the state flower bill during the Forty First Legislature.  Dr. McCoy lobbied to have the flower named because of its high tolerance for arid conditions and heat.  Gaillardia became the Oklahoma state wildflower with the passage of House Bill 1649, approved by Governor George Nigh.  Two years later, the State Legislature adopted Senate Concurrent Resolution 103 to proclaim every third Saturday in May “State Wildflower Day.”  The Gaillardia was chosen to represent the Oklahoma Multi-County Master Gardeners.

Indian Blankets are to be admired, not picked or caressed.  The plant contains sesquiterpene lactones, as do lettuce, chicory, daisies, celery, parsley, carrots and magnolias.  Although the secondary metabolites may be irritating to the skin, their value may lie in treatment of cardiovascular disease and cancer.  Tea from the roots may be effective to treat gastroenteritis.  The plant is thought to bring good luck.  

Beach before the storm

Perhaps the wild Gaillardias helped protect the barrier islands.  OBX has been hit a few times by high winds and heavy rains. Hurricane Teddy, fourth largest Atlantic hurricane, arrived in September, the same time as did seasonal high tides and strong northeast winds.  The hurricane produced long-form waves that washed the ocean over the roads, carried away portions of asphalt along the only highway that spans the Outer Banks.   The water either removed or cut into stabilized dunes creating sharp angled banks.  Enormous hills of sand are piled along sections of the one highway and around the beach houses.  

The week at the beach was a working ‘holiday’ for several.  The house had enough rooms, doors and tables to isolate two students and four employed adults.  The bicycles parked in the hall and rooms went out on regular rides.  The route was not complicated as Highway 12 is the only road through OBX. Go either north or south.  Cape Hatteras was a great turnaround point for the Monday ride.  Ocracoke Island was a Wednesday destination.  This involved a ferry ride from Hatteras to Ocracoke.

Ocracoke Island has been periodically connected to the rest of the Outer Banks. Storms have either silted up or trenched out the inlet between the Atlantic to the east and the deep Pamlico Sound to the west. Yaupon holly grow in abundance.  Blackbeard the pirate (aka Edward Teach) set anchor off Ocracoke on occasion.  It was at Teach’s Hole in 1718 a fierce battle took place and Blackbeard lost his head.  

 Outer Banks NC Fisherman holding a Redfish

The main attraction is always the beach. Fewer people meant more dogs and fishing aficionados.  The waves brought to shore jellyfish and puffer fish, skate egg cases, bits of whelks, heavy duty quahog shells and an assortment of wood, rocks, fish line and shell remnants.  Very little litter and plastic.

Without a doubt, the four who had the most fun were the 11 year old, 8 year old, 4 year old and 5 month old Labrador puppy.  Whenever the opportunity presented itself, they took off to the shore, built sand castles, flew kites, searched for shark’s teeth and dodged the ocean waves.  No one mentioned the glorious blooming Indian Blanket!

Sunrise at Avon NC

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.