Back to the Future with Gazanias

Gazanias have suffered boom and bust over the last 50 years. But after a long hiatus they're back in style, bigger and bolder than ever.

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Hybrid gazanias produce dense rounded clumps of foliage that bloom in flushes over most of the growing season.(SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself – DIY)

Sunset Magazine was the first to feature mid-century modern homes in the West and their gardens. Today you can find 1960s-vintage issues of its Western Landscaping Book in most libraries or used book stores. Inside these pages lies the blueprint for recreating historically accurate gardens for anyone restoring mid-century homes.

New hybrid gazanias offer alternative colors on vigorous plants such as the creamy white picotee of Daybreak Orange Cream. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself – DIY)
Gazanias are often planted in meadow gardens or in erosion control cover crops that benefit from bright color in the heat. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself – DIY)
This is a great example of the new Tiger hybrid gazanias with exotic striping available in a wide range of colors. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself – DIY)

Of all the plants favored at this time, one became the hallmark of the era. Genus Gazania would become commonplace in warmer regions of America, valued for its natural drought tolerance, vivid maintenance-free color and suitability as groundcover. They recently have reappeared on the garden scene, bigger and better than ever after a long hiatus.

Of the 40 species, there are basically two types of garden gazanias: trailing and clumping. Trailing Gazania leucolanea produces silvery foliage that spreads for solid gray groundcover stands. They bloom in yellow for many weeks in early spring. With time it was discovered that aging plants tended to die out in patches, spoiling the solid mass. No longer considered the panacea of groundcovers, it has fallen out of favor.

Clumping gazanias, known collectively as Gazania splendens hybrids, are another matter. These hybrids descended from two South African species. The Gazania longiscapa is found in hot inland areas north of the Cape. It would lend a high degree of drought resistance to the hybrids. The terracotta gazania, G. pavonia, is distributed along South Africa's eastern coast from the Cape north well into Natal. This plant would provide the bold vivid red coloring and the characteristic brown blotch at the base of petals.

Gazanias hybridize easily and tend to produce many variations in the wild and in cultivated gardens. As a result, it's nearly impossible to establish the ancestry of many contemporary plants. Early breeding sought to find more pastel-colored cultivars, but recent breeding goes for big and bold. The best approach to buying these plants is to choose them in bloom to know exactly what you're getting.

In mild-winter areas, clumping gazanias are considered perennial plants rather than solid mass groundcovers. In colder regions they are annual bedding plants that really perform in the heat of late summer and early fall. You may find them grouped in with annuals, perennials and in groundcover sections at the garden center.

Gazanias begin growth in spring, stimulated by a steady supply of moisture and cooler temperatures just as the wild plants are in South Africa's Cape region. This is a period of strong vegetative growth in preparation for the long drought to come. As temperatures rise both here and in Africa, gazanias begin to bloom heavily and will continue over a long period. When they transition to summer mode, too much water can cause plants in poorly drained soils to rot.

Using clumping gazanias for mass groundcover is not exploiting their best features. Contemporary hybrids produce tidy tufts of foliage under a foot tall that make beautiful single specimens or in small groups. Grow them close up against walks, patios and in pots where you'll appreciate the intense color. They are particularly good for quick color injections into xeriscape gardens.

As clumps age, you can dig and divide them just as you would any other perennial. Don't be surprised if your plants self-sow and seedlings spring up around the parent plants. These will transplant easily to spread this South African sunshine all over the garden.

Gazanias have suffered boom and bust over the last 50 years. But after a long hiatus they're back in style, bigger and bolder than ever. If you're looking to add just the right look to modern design, add fiery color to the back yard or spice up a dry-land garden, it's back to the future with gazanias.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of "Weekend Gardening" on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at mo@moplants.com. For more information, visit : www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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