The gladiolus was once known as sword lily. Improved types were first developed from crosses of several species native to the Mediterranean area of Europe. Later discovery of African species led to crosses, which produced the forerunners of the attractive large-flowered types we know today.
Although "glads," as they are commonly called, are used to a limited extent for landscape effect, their chief value is for cut flowers (Figure 1). Their wide range of colors, sizes and flower types makes them particularly useful for flower arrangements They are spectacular flowers for exhibition in flower shows and are a specialty of many amateur growers.
TypesAlthough the specialist may be interested in growing some of the unusual species and classes, the home gardener is concerned basically with two types of glads: the large-flowered and miniature.
The gladiolus "bulb" is actually a food-storage structure known as a corm. Gladioli growing natively in South Africa were exposed to a dry season. It was the function of the corm to maintain the plant while dormant until growth resumed after the spring rains began.
BOTANICAL NAMES: Gladiolus
The beautiful and the edible still tend to be divided by gardeners. We enjoy potatoes but would never, like Marie Antoinette, wear a corsage of their flowers. We grow millions of gladioli for their flowers but never think to eat their corms, which are said to taste like chestnuts when roasted and were certainly eaten in Africa, where many of them originated.
By far the largest number of our modern gladioli come from South Africa. From the end of the eighteenth century they were imported in huge quantities, including many sent back by James Bowie, a disreputable adventurer who botanized with Francis Masson. Too many introductions and hybridizations of gladioli have been made to enumerate here, but one important one was made in 1820 by Robert Sweet, whose career as a hybridist ended when he was accused of stealing garden pots from Kew Gardens.
Another was the "Maid of the Mist" sent home in 1904 by Francis Fox, the engineer who built a cantilever railway bridge over the Zambesi River at Victoria Falls. This gladiolus was found flourishing in tht watefall misty spray and adapted to the constant moisture by developing a hooded upper petal which kept its pollen-bearing stamens dry. It introduced yellow and orange shades into the hybridized gladioli's color sprectrum.
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