As the legend goes, there was a certain old man, an Indian, highly skilled at making beautiful blankets, full of reds and yellows, browns and oranges. People would travel great distances to trade for one of his creations.
But he was an old man, well aware that his own death was soon to come, so he weaved one last blanket, one he was to be buried in so he could present it to the Great Spirit as a gift. It was the most beautiful blanket he had ever made, and the Great Spirit was so pleased that he wanted to share it with the people of the earth. Soon, flowers, spectacular flowers, with the same colors as the blanket, began to bloom on the old man's grave. From there, they spread to fields everywhere.
And that is how Gaillarda pulchella, Indian blanket, came about. It's one of the most widespread and gorgeous wildflowers in North America. Thank you, Great Spirit.
Indian blanket is a Florida native — maybe. The United States Department of Agriculture say it's native throughout the lower 48, including Florida. Some argue that it is native to the western states and say it's an introduced plant east of the Mississippi. The Delray Beach-based Institute for Regional Conservation considers it an introduced plant. The divide between native and introduced is whether the plant was here when the first Europeans touched North American shores.
In any case, it's found in about half of Florida's 67 counties, including all but Collier in our end of the Peninsula. It is also a fairly rare plant here. It's also native to Mexico. Older USDA maps, such as the one below, had Indian blanket as a native of central and eastern Canada and Alaska, but revised maps have it as introduced.
Indian blanket is an annual, although some say it is a biennial or perennial given the right conditions. The plant grows to about 12 to 24 inches tall, has multiple stems that become woody at the base as the plant gets older. It tolerates heat and dry conditions. The flowers are large, mostly variations on a theme of a dark, brownish-red center, with petals that are a lighter red, becoming orange, then yellow at the tips. But the shades can be anything within those hues. They can also, be all yellow, but that's rare. Indian blanket blooms spring through summer, giving way to seed heads in fall.
Indian blanket is easy to grow from seed, and its tolerance of hot and dry conditions makes it a favorite for roadside plantings. The flowers attract butterflies, which, of course, attracts butterfly gardeners. They're also used in decorating as cut flowers and dried flowers.
A few Native American tribes, particularly in the west, had uses for Indian blanket. The Kiowa used it in their homes as a good luck charm and also for decor. The Acoma and Laguna of New Mexico would make a tea from Indian blanket that they would rub on breasts to relieve sore nipples and to wean infants. They used to the tea to relieve sore eyes. They made some sort of infusion from the plant that when ingested was supposed to improve the talents of their drummers. Really.
Indian blanket also has been used as a diuretic and to relieve painful urination. The leaves have been used to make a treatment for gout. The seeds have been used to make a "butter" of sorts.
The Great Spirit's gift has spread throughout the globe. It's found in temperate and subtropical places on every continent except Antarctica, of course. In most places, it's well-behaved, but in a few spots, particularly in the Caribbean and Pacific, it's acted badly. It's considered an invasive in Hawaii, Taiwan, the Ryuku Islands of Japan, the Dominican Republic, the Cook Islands, French Polyneisa and New Caledonia because of its tendency to take over fields and block out native plants.
Fun fact: Indian blanket is found in one county in central Alaska. Fun fact No. 2: there are three subspecies of Indian blanket, two of which are found in Florida — picta and pulchella. Indian blanket goes by a number of different names, including blanket flower, fire wheel and and rose-wing gaillardia. It is a member of Asteraceae, the sunflower family.