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Gladiator Gladiolus

By Audrey Stallsmith

Gladiolus cardinalis

Out in the green or in a jug full of water,
Your sword-shaped leaves parry
Midsummer air and your spikes disarm. . .

"Gladiolus and Her Kind," Ernesto S. Yee

Gladioli, I have discovered, are a lot tougher than they are supposed to be.  Assumed to be annual plants here in Zone 5, they frequently return the following spring anyway if we forget to dig their bulbs in the fall. 

They were, after all, the symbol of the ancient gladiators.  Gladius means “sword” in Latin, indicating that the flowers were named for the shape of their leaves.  The Greek title for the plant, ixiphium, also referred to that weapon.  So everyone agreed that these were fighting flowers!

Most species originated in Africa or the Mediterranean, after all, where they had to contend with some pretty arid climates.   The ancient Europeans grew only a few species native to their own continent, which they called sword flags, corn flags, corn lilies, or corn irises.  In 1597 British botanist John Gerard, who grew both Gladiolus narbonensis ("French") and italicus ("Italian"), explained their nickname.  “These kindes of Corne-flags growe in medowes and in earable grounds among corne in many places of Italy, as also in the parts of Fraunce bordering thereunto.”

In ancient times, “corn” was not the plant we Americans know by that name but whatever grain was most prominent in each country.  So Gerard was simply noting that species glads had a habit of growing wild in grain fields. 

In fact, the flowers are thought by some to be the lilies of the field mentioned in the following scripture, as types such as Gladiolus atroviolaceus ("dark violet") are native to the Holy Land. 

"And why take ye thought for raiment?  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:  And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  (Matthew 6:28-29 KJV)

Those "lilies" didn’t receive much attention in ancient Europe, probably because most of the glads available there were a plain magenta and often considered weeds!  In 1660 naturalist John Ray dismissed them as being “of no great esteem.”  A truly spectacular African species called Gladiolus cardinalis ("cardinal red") would change all that. 

Introduced to Europe around 1789, it stood four feet tall and was almost entirely scarlet but for some white diamond-shaped blotches on its lower petals.  Often making half a dozen stalks on the same plant, the vigorous and vibrant newcomer would have been hard to overlook.  The Dean of Manchester,  Dr. William Herbert, crossed it with an opposite type called blandus ("mild") that was white with red blotches – and the hybridizing began!

Fortunately, there were about 250 species types of gladiolus in Africa from which to choose.  The hybridizing received a welcome boost when Francis Fox, an engineer building a railroad bridge over the Zambesi River, discovered a yellow variety growing beside Victoria Falls.  Called primulinus ("resembling primrose") or Maid of the Mist, it contributed many of the sunnier hues we see in larger hybrid glads today.

I have a sneaking preference for the heirloom and species types, however, as they look so much more natural in a flower bed.  The modern glads, although gorgeous in bouquets, appear somewhat stiff and ungainly in an outdoor setting. 

The species types, on the other hand, can grow almost anywhere.  One alluring red, Gladiolus flanaganii, is still known as the suicide lily.  (I’m guessing it was probably named for the South African botanist H. G. Flanagan.)  It originated on the cliffs of the Drakensberg Mountains, where a person would almost have to be suicidal to try to reach it! 

Gladiolus edulis ("edible"), on the other hand, could sustain life, when its bulbs were roasted and eaten like chestnuts.  Gladiolus bulbs were often used in Africa to regulate the digestive system as well, and Gerard mentioned that mashed-up ones could be applied as a plaster for drawing out splinters. He also recommended the ground seed pods of gladiolus for treating colic. I wouldn't try any of this today, however, since many sites list gladiolus as toxic. 

I have a small and intensely red heirloom gladiolus called Atom blooming now.  (Heirloom is a relative term, as it originated in the 1940’s!)  Boasting a white picotee edge, it has proved to be perennial, but then again so have the probably newer hybrids that keep popping up in the vegetable garden. 

It’s too bad that gladiolus is often considered a funeral flower these days, because this is one gladiator that absolutely refuses to lie down and die!


Gladiolus cardinalis image is from Les Liliacees by P. J. Redoute, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.