Sandy’s Garden ... Gladioli

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We are getting close to the middle of August.

A Roman soldier called his short sword a ‘gladius’; and a gladiolus is a short version of this short sword. So we now know whence the botanical name of the flower came, for the leaves of the plant are truly shaped very like swords. Gladioli are classified as ‘cormous perennials’ meaning that the stems spring from corms year after year; and, although gardeners often refer to gladioli bulbs, the basis of the plant is, technically, a corm, which differs from a true bulb by being made up of solid tissue, while a bulb is made of layers of fleshy scales. If you cut a gladiolus corm in half, you will find it is solid, whereas if you slice open a tulip bulb you will see that it is made up of lots of layers. Here endeth the vocabulary lesson.

There are something of the order of 260 different species within the genus Gladiolus… the gladiolus family … and all bar a few of them are natives of sub-Saharan Africa. The small number that didn’t originate in sub-Saharan Africa are native to Eurasia, which is a virtually meaningless term for the whole of Asia and Europe combined, rather more than 10% of the surface of the Earth. Unsurprisingly, wild gladioli have quite small flowers: but their bright colours and the discovery that they make excellent cut flowers led to the corms being imported into the United Kingdom in huge numbers from the end of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth, many of the earliest imports being done by a disreputable adventurer named James Bowie, who accompanied the renowned … and respectable … botanist Francis Masson on some of his travels.

Here, nurserymen cross-bred different species to produce hybrid varieties with increasingly-large and showy flower spikes until we come to the present day spectacular giant flower spikes produced by commercial growers and achievable in the average garden from the corms now readily available to the average gardener. Yet, though the average gardener can plant the finest corms, his is not an easy task in these islands, for gladioli corms are at best half-hardy and must be dug up, carefully dried and lovingly stored through the winter months, this storage being arranged in a frost-free environment which is inaccessible to mice which are quite partial to the corms; the plant’s flowering period is quite short and is usually extended by the simple, but time-consuming expedient of planting the corms at, perhaps, fortnightly intervals during the spring; and their tall stems must be staked to prevent them from being broken by the wind. All in all, most people who fancy a vase of gladioli in the house will, however, buy them at a retail centre of their choosing, whether that be the flower section of a supermarket or the display area in a specialist florist’s shop. And I commend them to you as an attractive and long-lasting decoration for the home.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society