Updated: Nov 19, 2022
FIREWHEEL/INDIAN BLANKET FLOWER
Before my discovery of this plant, another famous explorer was introduced to it. Meriwether Lewis collected the first specimen of this wildflower on July 7, 1806. His research of this and other native species was completed by botanist Frederick Traugott Pursch in 1813, who completed a catalog of the species discovered on the famous expedition. The genus name "Gaillardia" honors an 18th century French botanist named Gaillard de Charentonneau. Firewheel is also known as Indian Blanket Flower. This flower is surrounded by glorious indigenous legend, lore, and wisdom. The Kiowa considered it good luck. Today people say the flower got its name from its ability to slowly spread and blanket an area. But the legends tell a different story. Here are just a few that I found surrounding the name.
Legend tells of an old Indian blanket maker whose talent for weaving produced such beautiful blankets that other Indians would travel many miles to trade for one. The old blanket maker had never taken an apprentice and when he realized that he had only a short time left, he began weaving his own burial blanket. It blended his favorite browns, reds, and yellows into the beautiful patterns for which he was so famous. In time, the old man died and his family dutifully wrapped him in this blanket, which was to be his gift to the Great Spirit when they met. The Great Spirit was very pleased because of the beauty of the gift but also saddened because He realized that only those in the Happy Hunting Ground would be able to appreciate the old blanket maker’s beautiful creation. So, He decided that He would give this gift back to those that the old Indian had left behind. In the spring following the old man’s death, wildflowers of the colors and design of the old Indian’s blanket appeared in profusion upon his grave … to bloom and spread forever.
Another story goes that braves from a certain tribe went to war, leaving behind their wives and children. Soon after, the wife of the chief began weaving a blanket for her husband. In the blanket, she wove threads of red and orange, each pattern a symbol of her prayer to the Great Spirit to keep her husband safe. One day the daughter of the chief was out playing in the woods and got lost. Night soon fell, and the little girl prayed to the Great Spirit to send the blanket to keep her warm during the night. She fell asleep. The next morning she found herself covered in flowers of the same red and orange colors as the blanket. Her father, returning from war, found his daughter covered in the beautiful flowers. From that time on, the flowers were called Indian blanket flowers.
In Mexico, the legend says Firewheel was once an all yellow wildflower in the days of the Aztecs. Women would adorn themselves with the bright yellow flowers, and children would play among them in the meadows. Then Cortez came, spreading death and destruction throughout the land. The bright yellow flower felt pity for the deaths of the inhabitants and caught their blood as it fell. To this day the Firewheel remains red with the blood of the Aztecs.
It is no surprise that a plant with such beautiful and thrilling indigenous lore was well known and well used.
HERBALISM It was a medicinal herb for Indigenous peoples who used the roots in tea to treat gastroenteritis. The plant is used as a diuretic, taken to give relief from painful urination. An infusion of the leaves is taken internally, and a poultice is applied externally, in the treatment of gout. For inflammation of your stomach or intestines, you can make tea from the roots. It has been used to treat skin disorders by grinding the root of the plant into powder or chewing it and then applying it to the skin. The tea can also heal sore eyes or sore nipples for mothers who have been breastfeeding. GROWING Firewheel is native to open grasslands and is found throughout most of the US. There are 12 species of this plant and at least one is found in every single state and part of Canada. It does well in dry areas making it an incredibly low maintenance plant. It prefers full sun and well-draining soil. Wet, cool climates are not where they thrive. It likes to repeat flower throughout the season. In fact, during the blooming season, one plant can have as many as 185 simultaneous blooming flowers! Talk about a show-off! All of those flowers mean lots of seeds. Firewheel is a prolific reseeder. It is considered a short-lived perennial and does well in Zones 3 to 10. However, it does have the ability to reseed itself and come back year after year similar to borage.
EDIBILITY The good news about all of those seeds is that they are also edible. The dried seeds can be ground into a powder then kneaded into seed butter and spread on bread. Forget sun butter, you can try Indian blanket butter!