Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Flower For August- Gladiolus

I'm sorry, what did you say? August is over? Oh good gracious! The winding down of summer, the starting up of school, hot days and cool swimming pool, dog mayhem, house chores, appointments, new job, Chemistry class.....  they have all conspired to steal away my time. I have fallen victim to that old misbelief of "When things settle down...." We all know things never do settle down and now it's September, so I'll just leave the dishes on the counter for awhile and wander in the world of the birthday flower for August, the ruffly gladiolus. Better late than never ...

Photo by theboybg via flickr

Photo by Russ Morris via Flickr

Photo by Mahmood Al-Yousif via Flickr

The name for August's grand flower, Gladiolus, is the diminutive form of the Latin word "gladius", meaning little sword, a reference to the flower's tall sword-like leaves. The gladiolus is a perennial member of the iris family (Iridaceae) and is in fact sometimes called a Sword lily. The same word is the root for the word gladiator, a soldier who “lived or died by the sword.”  Gladiolus is thought to be the 'lilies of the field' that Jesus referred to in the Sermon on the Mount as they grew wild and abundantly in the Holy Land and along the Mediterranean coast of Africa.

Spread through out Mediterranean Europe, Asia, Tropical Africa and South Africa, most species were discovered in the Cape Floristic Region on the tip of South Africa. Click the link for more information about this incredible region. Of the 260 species of gladiolus, 250 are native to sub-Saharan Africa, mostly South Africa.
Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund

Gladiolus were recognized over 2000 years ago in Asia Minor, where they grew wild in the fields and were called corn-flag or corn iris, a name that refers to the fact that they are unwelcome pests. Wild, natural gladiolus range in size from 1 to 8 inches. The luscious ruffly blooms we know today are the result of hundreds of years of hybridization and breeding programs. It was not until the 1800's that they were used as cut flowers. Prior to that, the gladiolus had a variety of myths and uses. Roman warriors believed that if you hung the corms around your neck like an amulet, the magical properties of gladiolus would bring you luck by helping you to win a duel and you would be protected from death.

A Greek legend tells of two brothers who fell in love with the same young woman. Neither would concede to the other. Their brotherly love gave way to intense hatred until it reached a point where they vowed to fight each other to the death. Both were fatally wounded in the battle. In the final moments, they plunged their swords into the ground. According to the legend, from that very spot grew the first two gladiolus plants, with leaves like little swords and blood red flowers marked in their hearts with white splashes from the girl's tears.


The Mayfield Florist tells the following tale:

There once was a prince named Iolus. He was a kind and just ruler of his kingdom and was beloved by all. Unfortunately he could not find true love in his kingdom. He heard of a beautiful girl named Glad who was being held captive in the neighboring kingdom by an evil wizard who was forcing her to marry him. Iolus went in search of the beautiful maiden. He came upon the castle of the evil wizard and asked him to teach his magic. The wizard accepted. When the wizard was away Iolus found the maiden and they fell in love at first sight. Holding hands they ran away from the castle. Glad and Iolus were far away when the wizard caught up with them They were turned into a long slender flower with beautiful, delicate, buds. Later people called the flower Gladiolus in honor of the strong love of two hearts who will never be apart.


Gladiolus have a long history of medicinal use, particularly in Africa where it was first grown. Mashed roots were used to draw out splinters and thorns and the dried pods were ground to a powder and added to goat's milk as a treatment for colic. The plant was used in southern Africa to treat a variety of ailments, including diarrhoea and colds. Many African herbalists consider the Gladiolus to be a magical medicinal plant as it is capable of treating dysentery, constipation and diarrhea simultaneously. Some use the plant for treatment of lumbago, painful menstruation, impotency, and headaches, while other herbalists use it to facilitate the birth of the placenta. Gladiolus dalenii is one of the plants used by local communities in the Kenyan Lake Victoria Basin to treat various infections such as meningitis, malaria, diarrhea, and ulcers. A 2009 study showed that extract of this gladiolus has anti-fungal properties, especially for certain lung infections that are common among immunosuppressed patients, such as HIV patients.

Gladiolus are fairly easy to grow: plant the corm in the spring and wait for your luscious blooms. Knowing a bit about them, however, will help you give them proper TLC. First of all, glads do not grow from bulbs, they grow from corms. Oh boy, here we go...  I'm going to let Healthy Home Gardening explain the difference:

Bulbs (which are referred to as "true bulbs") grow in layers, much like an onion. At the very center of the bulb is a miniature version of the flower itself. Helping the bulb to stay together is something called a basil plate, which is that round and flat hairy thing (those are the beginnings of roots) on the bottom of the bulb. Bulbs reproduce by creating offsets. These little bulbs are attached to the larger bulb.

Image via University of Illinois Extension Service

Corms look a lot like bulbs on the outside but they are quite different. They have the same type of protective covering and a basal plate like the bulb does, but do not grow in layers. Instead the corm is the actual base for the flower stem and has a solid texture. As the flower grows, the corm actually shrivels as the nutrients are used up. Essentially the corm dies, but it does produce new corms right next to or above the dead corm, which is why the flowers come back year after year. Depending on the type of flower, it may take a couple years to reach blooming size.

Image via University of Illinois Extension Services

So a corm is a swollen stem base that is solid stem tissue rather than layers (the modified leaves).

Photos via HGTV

So, let's get that corm into the ground. Gladiolus are not very fussy though they do prefer a well-drained site with light soil. If your spot is soggy you may want to consider a raised bed as my experience has been that soggy corms will rot and when they do, they're gross and slimy. Though you can plant in an area with some shade, your glads will bloom better, bigger, and longer in a full sun location and the corm will be able to store more nutrients for next year's blooms. Glads are generally hardy in Zones 6-10. My mom is still amazed that I don't dig up my glads for the winter here in my Zone 6 garden but she hails from Wisconsin (good Norwegian that she is) and Zones 5 and north are just too cold to winter over. Regardless, a nice layer of mulch is good to add for the winter. Plant your corms 4 to 8 inches deep, pointy end up, and about 5 inches apart. You can plant them maybe two weeks before your last frost date and stagger so you will have a longer show in your garden. Bloom time is generally July and August. If you are not in a cold hardy area, dig them up in September. Farmer's Almanac says to "cut the stalks to within an inch of the corms, then leave them in a warm, airy location for 1 to 2 weeks. Remove and throw away the oldest bottom corms and store the new corms in plastic, mesh bags in a well–ventilated room. The temperature of the room should be between 35º and 45ºF. Replant these corms in the spring."



I remove the dead flowers from my stalks to encourage the blooms further down the stalk to open up. Once all of the flowers on a given stalk have bloomed I cut the stalk back, but not the leaves, which I keep in place to encourage growth and strength of the corms. If you site them well, water when needed, fertile, talk to them and tell them how beautiful they are, your gladiolus may grow up to 6 feet talk. Be prepared with a staking plan.

My Zippy gal when she was a toddler, sitting under
an umbrella happily ripping up my glads.

 A word of caution- some parts of gladiolus are poisonous if eaten (including by dogs, cats, or horses) and some people experience skin irritations or an allergic reaction after handling glads. Most of the bad-juju chemicals are in the corms. I've seen them rated as a 1 on a scale to 1 to 10, with 10 being deadly, and I suppose if you eat enough of anything it can make you ill. The effects are generally gastro-intestinal in nature. I personally have never had skin reactions to handling the corms, plants, or juicy stuff and neither did my Zippy from the day I took the photo above. But still, it's best to be aware that some folks get skin irritations.

But if you send someone gladiolus, just what is it that you're trying to say? Glads symbolize strength, sincerity, moral integrity, generosity, and remembrance. Gladioli also represent infatuation, with a bouquet conveying to a recipient that they pierce the giver’s heart with passion.



Do I have any butterfly gladiolus with which I can finish up today? Oh, you betcha.... sort of.

Dwarf Butterfly Gladiolus, source

Gladiolus papilio ("Butterfly gladiolus") Source

And today I even have a song for you- Scott Joplin's Gladiolus Rag.


Hope you enjoyed today's stroll through the birthday garden. My most sincere apologies for being late and a belated Happy Birthday to all of my August butterflies.

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