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. parhamin­sus­

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