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Gaillardia pulchella not native? R.I.P. Florida-friendly Blanketflower

As of September 2021, FANN is still listing Gaillardia pulchella; however, users should be aware that this species is likely not native and should be used only for Florida-friendly landscapes and not for restoration.

BACKGROUND
After several years of hearing questions about the origins of Gaillardia pulchella from knowledgeable sources, FANN was not surprised to learn in December 2020 that leading botanists studying the Southeastern U.S. flora, including Keith Bradley, Edwin Bridges, Alan Franck, Alan Weakley and others, published in the internationally respected #1 source for primary botanical research, the Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, the conclusion that this plant cannot be considered a Florida native. An excerpt of their report appears below:

Based on the available evidence, Gaillardia pulchella is not native to the eastern USA. It is remarkable that G. aestivalis is found in many historic floras and ascribed to wild natural areas as far back as Walter (1788; Rock 1956). In contrast, G. pulchella is absent from the eastern USA in several historic floras and is only documented in natural areas sometime around the 1870s in Alabama, 1883 in Mississippi, 1902 in South Carolina, 1904 in Florida, and 1923 in North Carolina. In these states, several authors treated G. pulchella as non-native (Mohr 1878; Stoutamire 1954: 41, 104–107, 125; Burk 1961, 1962; Turner & Whalen 1975; Stoddart & Fosberg 1981; Martin et al. 2002; Sorrie et al. 2006) and labels of four early collections indicated that it was non-native. If G. pulchella were native to coastal dunes or other habitats in the eastern USA, it is extremely doubtful that a very colorful, conspicuous coastal plant would have been overlooked for so long. Its native distribution in nearby Texas and its propensity for inhabiting dunes in the eastern USA has probably given the false impression it is native to the eastern USA. The coastal form naturalized in the eastern USA has been cultivated since the early to mid 1800s (e.g., Gray 1884: “common in gardens”), allowing ample propagule pressure to establish it in disturbed areas and dunes. The appearance of G. pulchella along the east coast also post-dates significant railroad expansion in these areas (Martin 1947; Grinde, Jr. 1976; Doherty, Jr. 1980). Nativity is an important factor to guide biodiversity conservation (Shackleford et al. 2013). Unquestionably, conservation of native biodiversity should be a priority (Leopold 1949), and non-native species, especially those deemed invasive (Bradley et al. 2019), are often drivers of native biodiversity decline (Beaury et al. 2019; Blackburn et al. 2019). Thus, logically Gaillardia pulchella should not be part of restoration plantings in the eastern USA.

Upon receiving this information, FANN consulted with our partners, Florida Native Plant Society and Florida Wildflower Foundation, to determine their response to this bombshell. Gaillardia pulchella has, of course, been a very prominent, well liked and used “Florida native” for decades. We also consulted internally with our own Plant Czar, Richard Moyroud of Mesozoic Landscapes, and founding member of FANN. In his usual manner, Richard gave us the following thoughtful feedback:

We need to be careful about absolute pronouncements of nativity for many of the species found within the narrow political boundaries of an artificial state [boundary.] The Institute for Systematic Botany (ISB) is a good start, but … inconclusive, and says “probably not native.”

A second problem is the scale of time, linked to natural plant distribution. Many genera are common to the southern states, and covered large connected land areas during lower sea levels. Some populations were then cut off when sea levels rose, and seem out of place. We have only one Zizyphus species, but Mexico and the southwest US have six species. There are many more examples. Native Americans also moved plants, but our own definition is based on the arrival of Europeans in Florida, c. 1513, and we accept any plant here prior to that time as native. Gaillardia is medicinal, ornamental, and may have had other uses in ceremonies. 

Also linked to time is the ebb and flow of freezes in Florida, which happen at century scales. Royal palms were seen near Deland by Bartram, but successive freezes killed them back to a few warm sites in the Fakahatchee Strand and southern everglades. Plants will move north and south in Florida based on biology, not county lines.

A further issue with Gaillardia is that it is an annual, which colonizes disturbed areas. There are sites where a given species is not known to occur, but after clearing for development or some other radical change in the substrate, many plants suddenly appear – they were either dormant underground or arrived from nearby sites. Finally, we would be hard-pressed to show that Gaillardia was displacing any other species in the diverse dune and roadside plant communities.

[ with reference to published paper:] The last line on Gaillardia is important, since most of us see this only in landscaped areas. 

In our [Florida] Endangered Plant Advisory Council, the members prefer to act with restraint: when we are presented with new names for species in the threatened and endangered list, we do not jump to change the name published in the rule. There is no confusion if the author is linked to the species’ name, and it often takes a decade or more for names to become accepted or rejected (there is no written rule, but just a consensus of experts in the family involved.)  

I think the same approach is warranted for plants that are “questionably native.” We are listing Geiger Tree, Black Calabash, and others that have been challenged as natives. Dan Ward published an article showing that papaya seeds were found in pre-Columbian sediments in Florida, thus fitting the definition of native. We can go to one extreme or another, or amble along slowly, responding when the clamor of specialists demands some action.

[ with reference to published paper:] [it is] top-notch and I have no quarrel with [the] work. The original deep-time distribution and history are missing, and it may be impossible to reconstruct, but pollinators offer a clue; … native bees were seen in the flowers.  Given the damage wreaked by clearing, draining, and burning, we need more plant species, not less, especially if they appear to fit.

My vote is to leave Gaillardia in the FANN listings … Perhaps adding a caution note would satisfy critics. Landowners/designers [should always] contact local experts for guidance. No [reference] can substitute for specific regional knowledge of local ecosystems, their histories of damage, and proven solutions.

As a result, FANN’s 2022 Native Plant & Service Directory identifies Gaillardia pulchella as “likely not native per most recent botanical research.” The information is noted in our plant database but not currently available online; we hope this will be provided in a future website update. For those professionals doing restoration work, FANN strongly recommends consulting the original paper and best Florida botanical references, including the ISB and IRC. We note further that our partner, Florida Wildflower Foundation, on August 5, 2021, published a post on this issue and our partner Florida Native Plant Society has also updated their plant database to indicate that the species is likely not native to Florida and should not be used for restoration.

Questions about certain species, like Gaillardia pulchella, Salvia coccinea and the lantanas, will continue to be debated and researched by our best botanists. As an association that values science, FANN recognizes that new information can and will be uncovered, our understanding will expand and evolve, and that we must make the best assessments we can based on current scientific evidence, and remain open to change! Consider Gaillardia pulchella a valuable Florida-friendly plant, and avoid its use on ecological restoration projects. Stay tuned for more updates as we continue to learn more about this and other plant species.