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Gladiolus are a favorite among Austin florist

Arrangement with glads and roses
Arrangement with glads and roses
Joy Nord

Gladiolus, preferably called glads by florists, is an ideal cut flower because of its versatility in arrangements. It opens at the base of the spike and continues to open upward. The name gladiolus derives from the Latin word gladius “a sword” in reference to the shape of its leaves. It was considered the flower of the Roman gladiators which earned the flower’s meaning “strength of character.”

Before gladioli became common in the West, they were recognized over 2000 years

ago growing in the fields of Asia Minor (they originated in South Africa and the

Mediterranean region). During the 18th century African gladioli arrived in Europe where botanist began to hybridize them. By the early 1800s, in North America, gladioli had found their way from the garden to the table as a cut flower. Today, over 300 species of cultivated varieties exist.

The English used the gladioli stem base, known as corms, to make a paste for drawing out thorns and splinters, and powdered corms mixed with goat’s milk aided colic symptoms. Americans grow millions of gladioli for their flowers. We would never think to eat their corms which are said to taste like chestnuts when roasted. However, in Africa, they were once eaten as a staple.

Gladiolus are tall, vertical plants that should normally be planted toward the back of a flowerbed, although sometimes it’s a pleasant surprise for a bulb(s) to take up a temporary resident near the front. If this happens and you don’t like its appearance, cut the bloom and use as a fresh cut flower in your home. When used in arrangements, gladioli add a handsome tower of color. Cutting the flower stems does not harm the plants. In fact, the bulb becomes stronger because the energy is not wasted in allowing the flowers to mature. But do not cut the leaves as they must remain to build up the bulbs for the next year.

To ensure a steady supply of gladiolus, plant new bulbs every few weeks. They should be planted in the spring for summer bloom. Gladioli bulbs are called tender bulbs because their roots can’t tolerate frozen ground. In some regions of Texas the bulbs have to be dug up and stored during the winter. Here in the Austin area where the climate stays above freezing (most of the time) leave the bulbs in the ground. If you have a problem with squirrels or other rodents, it would be wise to dug up the bulbs.

If you gathered all of the gladiolus that are native to the Mediterranean area, tropical and South Africa, and the MascareneIsland, your giant bouquet would include over 250 different species. Unfortunately, only a few of these members are commercially available in their wild forms. Most gladioli grown in our gardens, or grown for resale, are the result of hybridization that has taken place for over 100 years. Modern gladioli have been raised by crossbreeding and selection throughout many years, originally between wild species and later between hybrids raised from them.

Formally gladiolus were grouped in various sections characterized by the flowers which were more or less distinct in form and markings. But those varieties are no longer distinct due to crossbreeding, which bridged the gaps between them. The flowers of today are funnel-shaped, usually flaring and ruffled, sometimes hooded and almost always carried on a one-sided spike. For garden and competition purposes, present-day gladioli are classified as early-flowering and summer-flowering.


Early-flowering includes the dwarf gladioli varieties, and taller Herald and Tubergenii types, which are suitable for cultivation under glass and in the south, out of doors. This group blooms in late winter and early spring.


Summer-flowering are the popular hybrid gladioli that normally bloom in summer and were once classified into such groups as Primulinus hybrids, large flowered, orchid flowered, etc. According to modern classification they are grouped as Formal and Informal. Formal varieties have their flowers arranged regularly on the stems, close together and approximately in opposite pairs. The Informal varieties have their flowers arranged less regularly, in loose spikes and spaced alternately on the stem. Both groups are further divided into groups according to the diameters of the individual flowers. Gladioli with flowers 5 ½ inches or more in diameter are Giants; those with blooms 4 ½ to 5 ½ inches in diameter are Large; those with flowers 3 ¼ to 4 ¼ inches in diameter are Small; and those with flowers under 2 ½ inches in diameter are Miniatures. Still, further division of the groups based on size is made according to color of flowers. These are classified as White and Cream; Yellow and Buff; Orange; Salmon and Scarlet; Pink; Red; Rose and Lavender; Purple and Violet; Smoky; and A.D.C. (any other color).


Secrets of success


Buying hints: Buy firm, plump bulbs in spring. Choose the largest bulbs of a particular variety. Avoid bulbs that are even slightly soft to the touch. Discard bulbs that have any signs of mold or mildew (green, blue, or gray spots) or obvious signs of growth.


Sun & soil: Gladiolus prefer full sun or partial shade. Plants that get direct sunlight generally grow straighter and are less likely to require staking for support. Well-drained soil is a must. Before you plant the bulbs dig the bed deeply. This will help the roots to spread and secure the plant. The bulbs should be set 6 inches apart and such a depth that they are covered with 3 inches of soil on light land and with 2 inches on heavy land.  Extremely large-flowered bulbs should be planted an additional 2 inches deeper and 8 inches apart.


Special advice: When the plant begins to flower, feed with a spray of seaweed of fish emulsion for better and bigger blooms.


Seasonal tips


Winter: If you choose to leave your bulbs in the ground, add a 2 inch layer of mulch to help prevent any frost damage if temperatures drop below 32 degrees for any length of time.


Early spring: You can find an incredible amount of colorful varieties in catalogs and on the Internet at any time of year.  


Late spring through mid-summer: Plant bulbs in late spring after the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. Bulbs will flower in about 90 days.



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