Dear Readers, I hope you will forgive me for writing about a very non-urban ‘weed’ this week – eastern gladiolus is a ‘weed’ of Somerset but I have not yet seen it in the wild in London. However, it seems so local to the West Country that I wanted to ferret out some information on a plant that seems to have gone largely unreported.
We do have one native gladiolus (Gladiolus illyrica) in the UK, which is confined to the New Forest and seems to have escaped the grazing predations of New Forest ponies and deer by growing amongst the bracken. Eastern gladiolus, however, is clearly a garden escape, and is widespread in the Isles of Scilly, where it is known as Slippery or Whistling Jacks. All gladioli are members of the iris family (Iridaceae) and are named from the Latin for ‘little sword’, probably referring to the shape of the leaves (this also explains their alternative name ‘sword lily’). They grow from corms, and the wild forms are often delicate and subtle. You can not say this for the larger, showier florist gladioli, which come in brash rainbow colours.
There are about 300 species of gladioli and the epicentre of diversity, as with so many plants, is in the Cape area of South Africa. Eastern gladiolus comes originally from a swathe of countries from North Africa in the west to the Caucausus in the east. I rather love its delicacy and elegance, and it certainly seems to pop up in the verges and gardens of my Aunt Hilary’s village in Somerset with very little encouragement. The first recorded sighting of the plant in a garden is 1596, so it’s had plenty of time to burst forth.
Many different insects are gladioli pollinators, but the one I would keep an eye open for if I had some of this plant in my garden would be the stunning hummingbird hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum). Actually, I’ve seen this creature twice in the wild, once on red valerian in Mum and Dad’s Dorset garden, and once on lavender in my garden in East Finchley, and I ache to see it again. Sometimes, people take quite some persuading that they haven’t seen an actual hummingbird, so similar are the flight patterns of insect and bird. The fact that hummingbirds don’t live wild in the UK is not enough to convince some folk that they haven’t seen an escaped one.
The caterpillars of the Large Yellow Underwing moth can feed on the leaves of gladioli too, and the moths are some of the commonest in my area.
‘Gladdies’ are, of course, synonymous with that ‘Housewife Superstar’ Dame Edna Everage, and even feature in a bronze statue of her in Melbourne.
As a family we used to roar with laughter at her wicked observations, and her relationship with her bridesmaid Madge was a particular source of glee. It was no wonder, then, that at a fancy dress party that Mum and Dad held when we lived in Seven Kings in the outer reaches of East London, Mum dressed as Dame Edna, and even had some gladioli to hand out. It’s true that Mum’s Dame Edna vocabulary was limited to ‘Hello Possums’ in an accent that owed more to Stratford than the antipodes, but she was such a comedienne that this was quite enough. Mum loved to make people laugh, and would play to the gallery given the slightest encouragement. Her particular gift, especially as she got older, would be to say something outrageous and giggle inwardly as everyone tried to work out if she knew the connotations of what she’d said.
I do believe that there may be vol-au-vents in the buffet spread behind Mum in this picture, and probably devilled eggs, just to date it accurately to the early 19080’s.
Another cultural figure associated with the gladiolus is Morrissey of The Smiths, who used to whip the flower out of his back pocket and throw it into the audience at his concerts . How I loved his lyrics when I was growing up! He seemed to understand the angst of the lonely and the rejected. However, he’s turned into a fascist, sporting a ‘Britain First’ badge at his concerts, and so I shall pass on without even so much as a photograph. It is always disappointing when the people that we loved when we were young turn out to have clay feet, but goodness knows there’s been a lot of that about lately.
For such an attractive plant, gladioli have been rather out of garden fashion lately – maybe the Dame Edna link makes us think that all of them are blousy, and there are some pretty horrific, overblown gladdies out there. I really like the eastern gladioli though, and if they are too subdued for your tastes they could always be paired up with montbretia for a real cerise and orange ‘kick’. I think they look rather lovely against the silvered wood of this fence. Although gardeners are often advised to lift gladioli corms for the winter, the doyen of cut flower gardening Sarah Raven suggests that a healthy layer of mulch keeps them just as happy.
And here is a treat. This wonderful poem, by Amy Clampitt, speaks of the way that we have grown used to having everything that the world has to offer available to us, the way that everything is in motion these days. And if you have time, have a listen here to the choreographer and artistic director Bill T.Jones reading this poem and three others, including one of my all time favourites, ‘A Blessing’ by James Wright. You will not be disappointed, I promise. And if you do not already follow ‘Brain Pickings’, I can thoroughly recommend it.
NOTHING STAYS PUT
by Amy Clampitt
In memory of Father Flye, 1884–1985
The strange and wonderful are too much with us.
The protea of the antipodes—a great,
globed, blazing honeybee of a bloom—
for sale in the supermarket! We are in
our decadence, we are not entitled.
What have we done to deserve
all the produce of the tropics—
this fiery trove, the largesse of it
heaped up like cannonballs, these pineapples, bossed
and crested, standing like troops at attention,
these tiers, these balconies of green, festoons
grown sumptuous with stoop labor?
The exotic is everywhere, it comes to us
before there is a yen or a need for it. The green-
grocers, uptown and down, are from South Korea.
Orchids, opulence by the pailful, just slightly
fatigued by the plane trip from Hawaii, are
disposed on the sidewalks; alstroemerias, freesias
fattened a bit in translation from overseas; gladioli
likewise estranged from their piercing ancestral crimson;
as well as, less altered from the original blue cornflower
of the roadsides and railway embankments of Europe, these
bachelor’s buttons. But it isn’t the railway embankments
their featherweight wheels of cobalt remind me of, it’s
a row of them among prim colonnades of cosmos,
snapdragon, nasturtium, bloodsilk red poppies,
in my grandmother’s garden: a prairie childhood,
the grassland shorn, overlaid with a grid,
unsealed, furrowed, harrowed and sown with immigrant grasses,
their massive corduroy, their wavering feltings embroidered
here and there by the scarlet shoulder patch of cannas
on a courthouse lawn, by a love knot, a cross stitch
of living matter, sown and tended by women,
nurturers everywhere of the strange and wonderful,
beneath whose hands what had been alien begins,
as it alters, to grow as though it were indigenous.
But at this remove what I think of as
strange and wonderful, strolling the side streets of Manhattan
on an April afternoon, seeing hybrid pear trees in blossom,
a tossing, vertiginous colonnade of foam, up above–
is the white petalfall, the warm snowdrift
of the indigenous wild plum of my childhood.
Nothing stays put. The world is a wheel.
All that we know, that we’re
made of, is motion.
Photo One from https://pixabay.com/users/Capri23auto-1767157
Photo Two by By Yusuf Akgul – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42615658
Photo Three by By Holger Gröschl – http://www.naturspektrum.de/ns1.htm, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=217437
Photo Four by By WalkingMelbourne – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16084775