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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Plant of the Month (April) : Bird’s-eye (Tricolor) Gilia - Gilia tricolor

It’s April and many native plants are blooming.  Particularly lovely are the annual wildflowers, which we’ve had to water several times this winter/spring due to very dry conditions (1/2 the normal rainfall).  Despite the dry weather, the Bird’s-eye Gilia, Arroyo Lupine (Plant of the Month April 2012) and other wildflowers are putting on quite a show for our April wildflower events!

 Annual wildflowers are among the crown jewels of our California natural heritage.  Gardeners throughout the world plant California natives like Lupines, Clarkias and California Poppies.  During the 1800’s, explorers gathered seeds of many California  wildflowers and brought them back to Europe.  They have brightened gardens world-wide ever since. 

Bird’s-eye Gilia is a member of the Phlox Family (Polemoniaceae), which is relatively common in California.    Like most in this family, it has flowers in parts of five and a 3-chamber ovary and seed capsule.   Like other members of the family, Bird’s-eye Gila is used regularly in gardens.  And this leads to one of the true puzzles regarding this species: is it native to Los Angeles County and further south?

Bird’s-eye (Tricolor) Gilia is still common along California’s north coast, Sierra Foothills and Central Valley.  The earliest voucher records for Gilia tricolor in Los Angeles County come from the early 1930’s (California Consortium of Herbaria).  By comparison, records for Gilia angelensis, a similar species, are numerous dating back to the 1880’s.  So is Gilia tricolor a Los Angeles native or an escapee from early native plant gardens?  We think the jury is still out – but urge viewers more knowledgeable than us to weigh in.  At any rate, Gilia tricolor is readily available from seed companies, while Gilia angelensis is not; we gardeners will have to content ourselves with Gilia tricolor for the time being.

Like most annual wildflowers, the size of Bird’s-eye Gilia is strongly related to soil moisture.  It can grow as short as 4-6 inches in a hot, dry spring – or as tall as 2-3 feet in a well-watered garden.  In the wilds – or if you sow seed directly into the garden – Gilia tricolor can grow densely packed.  Like many of our annual wildflowers, it doesn’t seem to mind the crowding; so you don’t need to thin the seedlings.  If you start Gilia tricolor in pots, space the plants every 15-20 inches when you plant them out.  Then you can fully appreciate the foliage and flowers.

Gilia tricolor (Bird's-eye Gilia): grown in a pot to accent
flowers and foliage
Tricolor Gilia has bright to medium green foliage.  The leaves are finely lobed, giving the plant a delicate, fern-like appearance (see above).  The foliage makes a pleasant contrast with other spring annuals like Tidy-tips, Goldfields and the Lupines.   The plants are many-branched, giving them a bushy appearance.

Bird's-eye (Tricolor) Gilia in wildflower garden
 with gravel mulch


The flowers are what make Bird’s-eye Gilia so appealing.  From a distance, the plants appear covered in small white flowers (see above).  At close range, you appreciate the complex color scheme of these little flowers.  Flowers range from about ¼ to ½ inch in width and are solitary or in small, loose clusters.  The five petals are fused into a trumpet-shaped corolla.  The outer lobes are white to pale blue or violet.  The corolla tube is yellow with distinctive blotches of dark purple (see photo below).  A finishing touch is provided by the powder blue stamens.  The result is nothing short of extraordinary!  The common name – Bird’s-eye – refers to the flower’s coloration, which is said to resemble a bird’s eye. 

Gilia tricolor - Close-up view of flowers

The old-fashioned flowers of the Bird’s-eye Gila are numerous.  On a warm spring day, their aroma can be quite strong.  To some, the scent is reminiscent of chocolate; to others, it smells more musky than chocolatey.   Either way, the plants attract hummingbirds, native bees and an occasional butterfly. 

Bird’s-eye Gilia is easy to grow.  In fact, it makes a good choice for a child’s garden.  Because birds love the seed, the best bet is to sprinkle the seeds just before a good rainstorm.  Rake the seeds in lightly, then keep the soil moist during the growing season.  In many years, rain provides enough winter/spring water in our area.  But don’t hesitate to water if needed.

Gilia tricolor ( Bird's-eye Gilia) - seedlings

Seeds germinate in 2-3 weeks.  The seedlings are distinctive looking (see photo above).   Once flowering slows down, taper off the water to let the seeds develop.   You can either collect the seeds (see picture of the seed capsule, below) or let the plants re-seed naturally.  For more on gardening with annual wildflowers see our January 2013 posting.

Gilia tricolor (Bird's-eye Gilia) - dried seed capsule
 opening to reveal tan-colored seeds


There are many ways to use Bird’s-eye Gilia in the home garden.  This is not a persnickety plant; in fact, it thrives on neglect.  It can be grown in full sun or part-shade.   So it’s a perfect choice for areas that are difficult to access or water.   Gilia tricolor looks good when grown with other yellow, white or blue-purple native annuals (see  http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/south-bay-native-plants-annual-wildflower-311 for a list of annual wildflowers recommended for S. California gardens). 

One of our favorite ways to grow wildflowers is in pots, providing a splash of color on patios, porches and walkways.   Bird’s-eye Gilia is right at home in any flower bed and makes a good filler between shrubs and under tall trees.   Consider using it as a short-term ground cover until larger plants grow to size.   It also makes a good pollinator plant around the edges of a vegetable garden or home orchard.

Gilia tricolor in garden - they are the shorter plants in front

Be sure to plant enough Bird’s-eye Gilia to provide seeds for next year and flowers for drying.  The flowers can be pressed or dried (see our posting on pressed flowers later this month) and retain their colors well.  The flowers also make nice cut flowers for bouquets.   However you use them, the flowers of Bird’s-eye Gila are sure to capture your heart!

Questions?  e-mail us at : mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com
Please feel free to comment, below




1 comment:

  1. Thank You for this wonderful page I have been seeing these flowers in one persons yard for several years and they never knew the name . Now I do. There so lovely have a good flower year. Bobby Beeman