Gladiolus Deserve a Spot in Today's Gardens

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I love gladiolus. I grow them by the hundreds. I cut armloads of them and fill vases with them. But I know what you are thinking. I really do, because I spend a lot of my time giving talks to garden clubs, plant societies and horticultural conferences. The audience is always with me until I mention my deep love for gladiolus. Mention the word, and I know what I’m going to hear: 80 percent of the people say, “Ugh, they’re such funeral flowers;” 15 percent say, “Tired old grandma flowers;” and 5 percent come up to me and confess, in a low whisper, that they love gladiolus too.

The heirloom gladiolus variety 'Atom'

The heirloom gladiolus variety 'Atom'

So, for the 95% of you reading this who think you hate gladiolus, I’m here to convince you to give them a second look. The fact is that gladiolus are so diverse that there’s something for everyone. Yes, the genus includes the blooms you remember from outdated flower arrangements—huge, stiff spikes of densely packed blooms in primary colors—but there is so much more than that.

HEIRLOOMS AND SPECIES

For a looser, more graceful, natural look, try old-fashioned varieties like ‘Boone’ or ‘Atom’. Both of these varieties have shorter flowering stems with graceful hooded blooms that open with some space between them, so you can enjoy the charm of each individual flower. 

'Boone'

'Boone'

‘Atom’ has rich, saturated scarlet flowers, with each petal edged with a perfect line of white. ‘Boone’ is a warm apricot blushing with orange. While some modern hybrids look too stiff and artificial to mingle easily with other plants in the garden, these two have a wildling grace that looks marvelous either in a bed with other perennials or in an informal flower arrangement in a vase. As an added plus, these two are some of the hardiest of the gladiolus, hardy to USDA Zone 6, or even 5 in the right spot. To maximize winter hardiness, give them perfect drainage and an extra layer of mulch in the fall.

Even less like the stereotypical gladiolus are some of the wild species from Africa. Gladiolus papilio is one of the best. The name means butterfly gladiolus, and the nodding, bell-shape blooms indeed have a color pattern so complex and beautiful that it looks like it should be gracing the wing of a butterfly. This species is cold hardy to Zone 6 provided it has good drainage, and of course it can be dug for the winter in colder locations. Sadly, in my experience it resents the hot, humid summers of the Southeast. Where happy, it grows and flowers abundantly. Sometimes a little too abundantly—unlike most gladiolus, the bulbs produce underground runners that can spread six to eight inches in a year. So if it is winter hardy for you, don’t put this one where it can swamp out weaker plants. Place it in a meadow with grasses and vigorous perennials and let it run where it wants.

Gladiolus papilio

Gladiolus papilio

Gladiolus murielae (fomerly Acidanthera murielae) is a treasure because right in the hottest part of the summer, when everything is looking tired and worn, this plant starts pumping out crisp white flowers marked with dark maroon at the base of each petal. Flowering can go on for months on a mature clump, and even better, the flowers boast a rich, spicy fragrance that gets stronger once dusk begins to fall. Hardy to Zone 6 or 7 and able to thrive in heat and humidity, this is one for nearly every garden.

Gladiolus murielae

Gladiolus murielae

The overwhelming majority of gladiolus species (and there are some 255 of them in total) hail from South Africa, but there are a few gladiolus native to Europe, and they are well worth growing. Gladiolus byzantinus (or G. communis subsp. byzantinus) is one of the best. Unlike the African bulbs that you should plant in the spring, this one is best planted in the fall, like a daffodil. Come spring, the swordlike leaves pop out of the ground early, with elegant spikes of brilliant pink, graceful flowers following soon behind them. If they’re happy—and to be happy they need little more than full sun—they’ll quickly clump up and come back year after year.

Gladiolus byzantinus

Gladiolus byzantinus

MODERN DELIGHTS

I don’t just love the old-fashioned or species gladiolus. There are many more modern hybrids that I adore as well. They just need to be placed a little differently in the garden to look their best. The species glads I discussed above look perfectly at home in an informal planting with grasses and prairie perennials, but the more modern hybrids look a little too artificial there. Combine them with cottage garden classics like roses, hollyhocks, maybe some dahlias, and they look spectacular.

One of the best things about modern hybrid gladiolus is their incredible color range. The flowers come in nearly every color imaginable. True blue hasn’t been achieved quite yet, but ‘Land O’Lakes’ is pretty darn close, with gently ruffled silvery lavender blooms that look so cool and refreshing on a hot summer’s day. Another favorite for unusual flower color is ‘Old Spice’. The color falls somewhere between lavender and brown, blushing to magenta at the center. And if that sounds weird, trust me, it is gorgeous, a color unlike anything else in your garden and devastatingly sophisticated in a vase. 

If you still things glads are tired and old, take a glance at ‘Spyro’. Nothing could be farther from a funeral flower; this one is more like a quinceañera on acid. Each flower has ruffled petals of yellow-shading-into-green, splashed over with bright magenta and eyelash-fine lines of dark purple. It is a lot. Maybe too much. But sometimes too much is exactly what you need.

GROWER’S TIPS

Not only are gladiolus diverse and fascinating, they’re blessedly easy to grow. All they really need is full sun and decently drained soil. Plant the bulbs (technically, corms) four to six inches deep once the soil has warmed in the spring, generally a week or two after your last frost. You can also plant them in batches every couple weeks to extend the bloom season. 

The biggest hassle with glads, especially the modern hybrids, is that the enormous flower spikes can be top heavy. You can stake them, but far easier is to wait until they are getting ready to flower and them mound soil or mulch up around the base of the plant to hold it steady. 

In zones colder than 7 or 8, you can choose hardy varieties, treat them like an annual or dig the bulbs in the fall after frost has killed back the foliage. Spread the dug corms out to dry for two to three weeks, then wrap them loosely in newspaper and store them in the refrigerator until spring. A cool basement or root cellar works great, too.

I hope I’ve won at least a few of you over to give gladiolus a second look. They really are much too delightful a group of plants to let your prejudices stand in the way of enjoying them. And if you are still on the fence, did I mention that they are incredibly inexpensive? So give them a shot in your garden this year. I promise you won’t regret it.

'Atom' credit: Samantha Forsberg/CC BY 2.0

'Boone' credit: Megan Hansen/CC BY-SA 2.0

Papilio credit: peganum/CC BY-SA 2.0

Murielae credit: Ton Rulkens/CC BY-SA 2.0

Byzantinus credit: Alvin Kho/CC BY-SA 2.0