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So glad

25 January 2022
Gladioli pink flowers

The humble gladioli is undergoing a renaissance, swapping its fusty past for a stylish future.
Words Vivienne Bailey Photos Getty Images.

Dame Edna Everage, the alter ego of Australian comedian, Barry Humphries, turned this cheerful, once-popular flower into an object of fun. But times have changed, and the slender-stemmed gladioli is having a well-deserved revival.

Gladioli leaves and flower spikes have a unique, long and pointed shape, which makes it little surprise their genus, Gladiolus, comes from the Latin word gladius, meaning ‘sword’. Gladiators in Ancient Rome reportedly wore the corms around their necks during battle – for protection and to ensure victory.

In Victorian flower language, gladioli means sincerity and generosity, as well as integrity and strength – possibly a link to the flower’s association with gladiators. They are certainly strong (and tough) in the garden, thriving in forgotten, neglected spots, often surviving with very little water or feeding.

Among the best known of all garden bulbs, they are members of the iris family, one of more than 100 species of cormous (corm) perennials native to Africa, although the plant also grows in the Middle East and in parts of the Mediterranean (the plants with the most conspicuous and colourful flowers usually come from southern Africa).

Gladioli are unrivalled as cut flowers. Their form and structure make them perfect for wonderful floral centrepieces though you may need tall vases). The best time to pick blooms is when the first flower at the bottom of the stem starts to show colour, although spikes will continue to colour up and open once in water. If you pick off the spent lower flowers as they fade and refresh water every second day, your blooms will easily last 10 days.

Gladioli have been extensively hybridised and plants vary greatly, from small, often rare species to the more familiar and rather spectacular spikes (often reaching 1.5m in height) found in our florist shops.

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Although not difficult to grow, gladioli need ample moisture and plenty of mulch during the growing and flowering time.

Three main types

Cultivated gladioli, from the grandiflora group, produce long, densely packed spires of flamboyant, funnel-shaped flowers during summer in a wide (almost bewildering) array of colours. These include a gorgeous newcomer, ‘Chocolate’, in scrumptious deep chocolate-maroon; rich purple ‘Mombasa’; deep red ‘Stromboli’; various shades of lavender (‘Alpha’, ‘Mediterranee’ and newcomer ‘Grapevine’); rose pink (‘Fortarosa’); the stylish lime-green ‘Green Star’; and bi-coloured blooms with blotches (bright pink, red-splashed ‘Cindy’) or picotee edges (‘Priscilla’). You’ve also got a choice of ruffled, waved or frilled petals in either a large-flowering or petite form.

Further to grandiflora hybrids are two other main groups. Gladiolus primulinus is the most common true species and, although less showy than the grandiflora hybrids, primulinus hybrids have a graceful, endearing charm. They produce small flowers, sometimes blotched, arranged irregularly on a stem up to 60cm tall, each bearing about 20 blooms with hooded upper petals. A favourite is G. tristis, which produces spikes carrying up to six white, cream, pale green or yellow flowers on slender stems. The perfume is beautiful, strong and sweet and released at night.

The miniature nanus or butterfly group bear neat, loosely arranged flower spikes, often blotched or ruffled. My personal pick is the elegant, pure white G. × colvillei ‘Albus’ (syn. ‘The Bride’). These petite, super-hardy gladioli look great in containers or as a border plant. If you’re a collector of the unusual or looking for that special plant for an alpine or rock garden, there is the small, pretty G. alatus, which produces fragrant flowers of red, orange or yellow, or you could go for the delicate G. carinatus, with her pale mauve flowers and yellow throat and a sweet, violet-type perfume.

How to grow

Enveloped in several layers of brownish fibre, corms are rounded and plump and can be planted (15cm deep, 12–15cm apart) in a sheltered, sunny spot in well-drained soil at fortnightly intervals, from July to December. This will guarantee a colourful display and a continuous supply of cut flowers from November to April (plants flower 90–100 days after planting). However, the quality of blooms will reflect the health of your corms. The more plump, high-neck corms with small root scars (at the base of the corm) produce far superior flowers than the flat, wide corms with significant root scars, so choose corms by depth rather than width.

Although not difficult to grow, gladioli need ample moisture and plenty of mulch during the growing and flowering time – a lack of moisture often results in shorter spikes and smaller blooms.

Taller-growing types will need support. If you only have a couple of plants (they look best grown in groups of three or five) you can stake individually, but with groups, a framework of stakes with twine trussed in between will work well. A bonus with those upright spires is they can fit into a range of tight spaces in the garden – you could pop them in between your rows of asparagus.

Sap-sucking thrips may be a problem, but they can be combated by spraying with a general-purpose insecticide. If the weather is wet and mild, check plants for signs of rust disease, which spreads by spores in humid conditions. You could try a DIY solution by mixing baking soda in water with some added detergent and wetting the plant thoroughly – good coverage is essential.

Some gardeners may be able to leave their corms in the ground over winter, but if in doubt (and where frosts are expected – freezing conditions can damage corms), lift them about six weeks after flowering and cut off the tops about 2cm above the corm. Brush off excess soil then dry corms for a couple of weeks or more in a well-ventilated room before removing the old mother corm. This shrivels and dies each year, but one or more new corms form on top of it during the growing season and can be planted the following season.

No longer perceived as fusty and old-fashioned, gladioli add stylish elegance to any garden. Their vertical accents provide highlights of colour for surrounding, lower-growing shrubs and perennials, and those floret-filled spires suit both natural and cottage-garden style planting. Ideal as a background in a mixed border, used as edging along pathways, and great as fillers after spring bulbs have had their fling, you’ll be glad to have glads in your garden!

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