If ever there were a flower tailor-made for bold color, it's the gerbera.
This happy-faced daisy, loved by flower arrangers, artists, and photographers, unfurls shapely petals, all neatly arranged around a tufted or velvety center.
It comes in a rainbow of glowing colors: sunny yellow, sassy orange, vivid red, flaming coral, hot pink, and deep fuchsia.
If subtle colors suit your taste, you'll also find the blooms in creamy white and a range of soft, sherbet shades like pale lemon and seashell pink.
As cut flowers, gerberas are practically unsurpassed. Their sturdy stems, topped with 4- to 5-inch-wide blooms, rise from rosettes of dark green, wavy-edged leaves.
Flowers are mostly fluffy doubles, with brown or yellow centers.
"Buying a single plant is cheaper than buying a bouquet, because a plant can bloom for years," says Luen Miller, a grower with Monterey Bay Nursery in California.
The trick for best results is to give it optimum conditions.
Modern hybrids of Gerbera jamesonii come from parents native to South Africa's Transvaal region; many strains are now sold.
Those grown predominantly as cutting flowers are propagated by tissue culture to ensure consistency in flower color, stem length (up to 24 inches), and general appeal.
For bedding plants, dwarf types (about 7 inches tall) are usually grown from seed, so they vary in petal count, color, and stem length.
In the West, gerberas are perennial in Sunset climate zones 8, 9, 12-24, H1, and H2, where they bloom most heavily in late spring and summer.
Although flowers can appear anytime -- even in winter -- plant growth slows when temperatures drop below 65°.
Irrigate plants as needed to supplement rainfall.
In other zones, grow gerberas as annuals. In the hottest desert areas (zones 12 and 13), plant them in fall for winter and spring color.
In intermountain areas, you may find potted plants at florists; grow them indoors in a cool, sunny room.
Shop for blooming plants at nurseries in 6-inch pots and 1-gallon cans. To enjoy peak bloom, cluster pots on a patio or group several plants in a patio box. Then, after bloom is through, move them to a more permanent home in separate containers or raised beds.
For cutting flowers, plant at least a dozen tall-stemmed kinds in garden beds. Group dwarf plants at the front of a bed or border, or tuck them in window boxes.
Pick off old or tangled leaves regularly; bait or handpick snails and slugs. If mildew appears, snip off affected leaves.
Large flowers, vibrant colors, and sturdy stems make gerberas standouts in the garden and in bouquets (see below). Most hybrids have blooms with two or more rows of petals.
PLANTING FOR TOP RESULTS
One way to give gerberas the excellent drainage they need is to plant them in mounds of garden soil.
EXPOSURE. Near the coast, give plants full sun; inland, partial shade.
SOIL. It should be loose, rich, and fast-draining. In pots, use a packaged potting mix.
WATERING. Irrigate deeply, then let soil go nearly dry before watering again. Avoid wetting the leaves and watering at night, which can cause powdery mildew or crown rot.
FEEDING. Fertilize monthly during spring and summer with a dilute liquid plant food according to label instructions.
Cutting gerberas for the vase
To prepare cut flowers for bouquets: Using sharp shears, cut the stem under warm water to the desired length; make the cut at a sharp angle, as shown above.
Remove the stem from the water and cut a 1/2-inch slit up one side of the stem, as shown here, before arranging it in a water-filled vase. Replace the vase water every day or two.
If flower heads start to droop after a few days, recut stems under warm water.