PLANT OF THE WEEK #36: Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus

I here confess that despite my best intentions to maintain an objectivity when it comes to plants and their merits, there have been a few influences in my life that simply override my best attempts, or pretences, at impartiality.

The biggest of these, by a long shot, is Christopher Lloyd, and Great Dixter.  Any plant that he praised, I default in favour of.  And plant that he grew, I’ll grow if I can, until I decide I really don’t need or want to.  And any plant I grow that grew at Great Dixter is automatically surrounded by layering spheres of magic that virtually obliterate my discernment.

You need to read this (and probably many other of my Plant of the Week posts) through that lens.  Perhaps there should be a confessional tick box, in which I declare, from the start, whether the plant grew at Dixter or not, so you can apply that filter.

While I happily confess this, I don’t regret it.  I know that you, too, will have plants with rich associations with people or places, that become your primary reason for growing them.  (And if so, I’d love to hear of them in the comments section below).  It’s an emotionally resonant aspect of gardening I’d never want to be without.

So with that preamble firmly in place, I think the first time I ever laid eyes on Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus was at Great Dixter in 1991.  I loved it from the start.  Anything that can self-sow about like that, and pop its head up to flower at it’s designated time, without casting shade or other forms of competition upon its neighbours, and then quietly and conveniently go to ground until next year, is likely to get the thumbs up from me.

But add to that a compelling combination of strong, strident colour with a simple, unaffected ‘unimprovedness’, and you have an irresistible result.  The flowers of this gladiolus are a really loud magenta, which, with each passing year of flowering, strike me as boldly out-of-phase with the colour range of plants thus far in the spring build.  It feels like a visitation of colours from another season – a glimpse of the chromatic shape of things to come.

Absolutely essential to it’s charms is, of course, that heart-wrenching characteristic of flower-stem design that arranges a string of buds up a tapering stem that open from the bottom up, so that you have a gradation of bud maturity visible – those at the bottom open and fully pigmented, grading upwards through closed buds into which the colour is just starting to bleed, through to tight, young green buds.  It’s a nature-design concept par excellence, and is the essence of the beauty of so many plants such as freesias, ixias and Ipomoea (once Mina) lobata, just to name a few of the very many.

Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus is classically Mediterranean in its life cycle, growing and flowering when there’s late winter and spring rainfall, then dozing for the rest of the year, and I’ve heard that you can cut it off at the ground the moment it has finished flowering (though I’ve yet to test this out myself, having wanted to retain it in situ for seed collection).  And like any plants with this life cycle, it’s perfect for growing amongst and through other developing perennials, that will likely have already filled the gap that would otherwise be left when you cut the gladiolus down.

Now to get it going in rough grass…

Discussion

  1. While I grow many South African Gladiolus species, for some reason I never got to grow the Mediterranean ones and it looks like I am missing out !
    With regards to plants and their association with people or places, I always make a point to have rue (Ruta graveolens) growing somewhere in the garden.
    Not a very showy plant, but on a very hot day it releases loads of oils in the air that pervade the garden with its characteristic smell (some find it fetid, to me it smells that freshly crush fig leaves…), which brings me straight in the middle of the Provencal countryside in South of France.

    1. Years and years since I grew rue. But I must again, for all the reasons you suggest. And I now have a much greater appreciation for plants that are there for visual support of others. You can’t make a garden of nothing but A-listers!

  2. I first saw this beauty growing at Lambley Nursery a couple of years ago. From memory it was planting through Salvia nemorosa and as you described, was a great focal point whilst waiting for growth. In my own garden I have it planted through Salvia ‘Mystic Spires’. This works well as much of the Glaidolus foliage is hidden and the flowers just finish as the Salvia starts. Very low care and I have it growing in a heavy soil.

    1. Yes, I have a pic taken there from about 12 years ago, with this in combination with one of the Salvia nemerosas and Euphorbia characias ‘wulfenii’. Unforgettable. Good to know it works well for you in heavy soil. I always imagined that it would like it light, but mine is also on heavy soil, and is increasing rapidly (though not yet self-sowing)

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