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Scarlet gilia are a native plant of British Columbia. These red flowers can be seen the roadsides and slopes of B.C.'s interior.
Red flowers are widely available in horticultural plants such as zinnias and snapdragons but are not at all widespread in native species. In British Columbia red is usually found in fruits and leaves such as the bright hips of wild roses (Rosa spp.) and fall leaves of vine maple (Acer circinatum). For this reason the bright splashes of red of the scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis or Gilia aggregata) along the dry roadsides and slopes of southern B.C.’s Interior immediately draw one’s attention.
Scarlet gilia is a biennial or short-lived perennial like the widely grown evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). It grows from a taproot that reaches at least 15 cm (6 in.) into the soil. A rosette of ferny leaves grows at the crown, and often persists through the winter. Leaves are covered in crinkly hairs that when crushed emit an odour.
Usually a single stalk reaches from 10 to 100 cm (4 to 40 in.) from the centre of the rosette and bears star-shaped flowers. Flowers are about 2.5 cm (1 in.) long and consist of a long narrow tube that flares sharply into five narrow, pointed lobes. The typical colour in southern B.C. is bright scarlet but ranges from white to pink and even speckled. Flowers open from May to August. Plants typically flower once and then die.
Scarlet gilia occurs from the Interior through the western United States to Texas. In our province this species grows east of the Cascade Mountains along the border northward up the Okanagan valley. The natural habitat includes sunny rocky slopes, dry meadows and sagebrush from low to medium elevations. You can sometimes find it in conifer openings and along disturbed roadsides and tracks. Scarlet gilia strongly prefers well-drained sites.
Because of its drought tolerance and low nutrient needs, this herb is a great subject for dryland gardens and naturalized areas with bare soil patches. It does not like wet soils, so regularly watered places in the garden are not suitable. C. L. Hitchcock and others in the Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest Part 4 (1959, University of Washington Press) long ago recognized the garden value of this native species, noting it to be “suitable for sunny sites in the wild garden.” Scarlet gilia is easily grown from seed collected after flowers fade and best sown in a desirable site in the fall. Seeds germinate quickly and the seedlings persist into the following year when they bloom. Once you have established a patch, rake the soil in the early fall to provide a fresh surface for seeds to germinate. The plant grows particularly well on neutral to somewhat alkaline soil with low nutrients.
Okanagan peoples used scarlet gilia as a laxative and to purge the bowels. Southward the Shoshone people boiled the plant and either drank or bathed in the fluid to treat venereal disease. The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and attract hummingbirds.
The blooms of scarlet gilia are striking and the plant appears easy to propagate from seed. It deserves to be more widely grown in our dry Interior gardens.
Ipomopsis aggregata (scarlet gilia) is hardy to zone 4.