Plant profile: gladiolus
A select palette of modern Gladiolus hybrids are making their way to the fore as the perfect accent plant for contemporary planting schemes
Head gardener Tom Brown selects the best gladiolus from his extensive trials at Parham House & Gardens
I’m harbouring no illusions that I have my work cut out, trying to persuade some of you to find room for gladioli in your gardens. For many these plants are forever associated with outrageous taste; the sight of a flamboyant Dame Edna waving them around on our television screens in the 1970s or Morrissey doing much the same thing a decade later are seared in our memories. But fear not, a modern era of gladioli has arrived, thanks to a tremendous amount of hybridisation work, in response to our ever-changing trends and tastes. Gladioli still offer those bright-red and acid-yellow blooms that scream nostalgia, but, as with modern tulip breeding, the darker, subtler and the more compact cultivars are beginning to push their way above the crowd.
Gladiolus takes its name from the Latin word gladius, meaning sword like, in reference to the shape of its leaves. In ancient Rome gladiators are said to have worn gladioli corms around their necks when going into battle leading to the plant’s association with strength and integrity, although it is also symbolic of infatuation. More than 255 species of gladioli exist in the wild and are most diverse in South Africa where they flower in soils that do not freeze and bloom during the cooler months of the African winter. Here in the UK gladioli are summer-flowering plants mostly used as cut flowers. In recent years they’ve fallen out of fashion, mainly thanks to those sold in supermarkets and on garage forecourts; like alstromerias, sunflowers and sweet williams, they are plants that have become so inexpensive and plentiful we take them for granted. As an antidote to this, the orchid-like flowers of ‘Flevo Cool’ and ‘Adrienne’ are truly sophisticated, associating beautifully with other late-summer performers. In a vase or border, these more compact cultivars enhance a display without dominance.
Of course, if you’re looking for loud and proud in your vase then there are also more traditional-looking, ruffled gladioli cultivars such as ‘Priscilla’, ‘Pink Lady’ and ‘Aftershock’. The challenge when using these in a cutflower arrangement is finding companions that will stand up to them. In this case look no further than dahlias, zinnias and sunflowers to complement your gladioli. Dahlia ‘Charlie Dimmock’ and D. ‘Sam Hopkins’ work incredibly well. Equally, sunflowers such as Helianthus debilis ‘ Vanilla Ice’ and H. annuus ‘Sonja’, or the ever reliable Benary’s range of zinnias.
Richly coloured gladioli, including ‘Violetta’ and ‘Flevo Flash’, alongside their cousin G. murielae can be used as accent clumps through an herbaceous border to accentuate colour. Techniques such as repetition and using reliable performers in a planting are much-used tools in a head gardener’s armoury. Try using dwarf gladioli in groups of five to ten bulbs at the front and central band of your borders. The rich and opulent ‘Aftershock’, ‘Chocolate’ and ‘Velvet Eyes’ demand attention, providing a pulse of vibrant colour to take us through into the safe hands of the later performing asters and rudbeckias. In contrast, clusters of ‘Homecoming’ and ‘ Break of Dawn’, with their tranquil tones, can offer a soothing backdrop to sipping a gin and tonic on a balmy summer evening.
Much is talked about the June gap in gardens, that brief lack of flowers after the tulips have died down, before early summer flowering perennials take centre stage. But what about the late August gap? That period when late-season perennials are still gathering momentum but summer favourites are starting to struggle with rising temperatures and dry conditions. Step up gladioli, igniting fireworks in the front, middle and rear of our borders and blowing the lid off our late summer creativity. So my advice is banish all thoughts of brash and gaudy. Instead, experiment and indulge your garden and your vases with bold and beautiful spikes. In short, allow yourself to be seduced afresh by the vintage glamour and the contemporary charms of the gladioli.
• Tom’s recommendations for the best gladioli continue over the next five pages.
At Parham House & Gardens in West Sussex, head gardener Tom Brown has trialled more than 80 Gladiolus cultivars to establish the best.
Parham House & Gardens Most of the images for this month’s plant profile were taken at Parham House & Gardens in West Sussex where Tom Brown (above) has been head gardener since 2010. Tom undertook a major trial of Gladiolus cultivars at Parham House in 2017. The best from that trial are included among those featured here. parhaminsussex.co.uk