Cool whites on a hot day

The garden has been slightly neglected this week – it has been just too hot to do much outside. It has been hot indoors too and the cat has been struggling to keep cool – not always retaining her modesty. It must be awful having a fur coat in this heat.

The lawn needs mowing, mainly because there is so much clover in it and it keeps flowering, much to the delight of the bees. They only have to put up with no clover for a few days before up pop new flowers, in case you are worried about them and I have to constantly stop to let the bees fly off so I don’t run over them. It makes mowing slow but I can be sure that the bees are OK and maybe forcing them onto my flowers might teach them to pollinate something useful.

But the week has been notable for the first flowers opening on my acidanthera. Few flowers give me as much pleasure as these easy-to-grow corms and they are readily available but before I extol their virtues, a few words about them and their name – because they are not really acidantheras.

More accurately called Gladiolus murielae, this beautiful (Iridaceae) plant is native to east Africa and has kept botanists busy deciding what to call it. It was first described in 1844 as Acidanthera bicolor but in 1973 the genus acidanthera was merged with gladiolus. But because there was already a Gladiolus bicolor the species name had to be changed. The name chosen was Gladiolus callianthus. This was appropriate because it means ‘beautiful flower’ or ‘beautifully flowered’. But the botanist had not done his homework and it was later found that an earlier name had been published – Gladiolus murielae – in 1932. So, because priority is always given to the earliest published name, that is what it should be. It is named after Muriel Erskine, the wife of the man who collected it in Ethopia. When it comes to buying the corms, you will find either the correct name or any assemblage of all the names above. It is a shame that when a name as simple as Muriel is latinised it becomes such a mouthful!

Common names are not much better. It is sometimes called the Abyssinian gladiolus, which makes some sense. I tend to call it acidanthera as a common name, which has no real justification, but it is better than ‘peacock orchid’ which seems to be more common in the USA.

Having got all that sorted, this is a tender, cormous perennial – it is a gladiolus after all. It is not frost-hardy so needs planting after the latest frost and it will generally not survive winter here. It grows to about 80cm high and, usually late in summer, the flower scapes are produced from the centre of the fans of pleated, soft green foliage.

The flowers are magical. They appear upf the scapes, and have flower tubes about 10cm long, that curve elegantly to hold the white flowers, blotched with maroon, facing forward. Elegant is hardly sufficient to describe the poise of the blooms. There are usually two or three flowers open together. The blooms open in succession for about three weeks. Each corm will produce one stem.

The flowers are 10cm across (I just measured them) and the main reason to grow them, in my opinion, is the smell. The fragrance is gorgeous. As soon as I get a whiff I am transported to a holiday, (I never had) laying in the sun, covered in Ambre Solaire. It is so long since I bought any of that that I am not sure if they really do smell like this but it is what my memory tells me. It is certainly a complex but light perfume and, as you would expect from a white flower, strongest at dusk. It must be pollinated by moths in the wild with that long tube.

But onto practicalities. This needs a longer growing season than we have here so they are not easily perennial. You can plant them in the garden in April but I always start them in pots first, in early March, and plant them out, as a clump of growing plants, in late May so they are not affected by frost. This way they start blooming in – well now.

This also gives them a chance of producing decent-sized new corms that may flower next year. When they are lifted they will have produced masses of ‘rice grain’ cormlets around the base – common in many gladioli. These will have to be grown on for at last a year before they bloom.

If this all sounds like a lot of hard work you can do what I usually do and treat them as annuals. The corms, sold widely in spring, even in supermarkets, are cheap. But be a bit careful because small corms may not flower well or not flower at all. So I would suggest that you don’t be tight and ignore the 99c (p) packs and you buy the corms in garden centres or ‘proper’ bulb specialists and buy good-sized corms. It really does make a difference.

I planted seven corms in 18cm pots. They were about 5cm deep. I watered carefully at first until I could see growth. They were kept in full sun at all times, in the polytunnel. If planting direct in the garden, wait till April and plant a bit deeper, to protect from frost, and further apart. They appreciate plenty of water but because of their upright habit they don’t take up much space and can be grown through other plants. They are ideal for pots too but remember they are tall and slender and they may need support, especially if not planted deep. I have seen them recommended for window boxes, which is just daft. But they are lovely in big patio pots where you can enjoy the sweet perfume in the evening.

I know that I am overly enthusiastic over lots of plants but this one really is beautiful. Although not easy to keep from year to year it is easy if you buy corms fresh every year and as a pack of ten (good-size) corms will only cost the same as a coffee, it is hardly extravagant.

I will keep the verbage short for Veronica longifolia ‘Charlotte’, having written too much already. This is a ‘relatively’ recent introduction and has upright stems with narrow leaves, edged in creamy white and long heads of tiny white flowers. It has a lot going for it. It is tall (70cm) and rather narrow so does not take up too much space. It has not needed staking so far. Crucial, for me, is the fact that the flowers drop as they fade so the clump is not ruined by brown dead flowers, which I hate.

Many garden veronicas, though pretty, are martyrs to mildew and, though the grey, powdery coating may not ruin my planting scheme, I am happy that this one is, apparently, mildew-free. I understand that this is because the variegation is a chimaera and the outer cells, being devoid of chlorophyll cannot sustain the fungal growth – interesting. And a bonus.

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8 Comments on “Cool whites on a hot day”

  1. tonytomeo
    July 23, 2021 at 7:20 am #

    Ah, white! My favorite color! I just wrote about our white garden (which was actually not my idea) for one of my Six on Saturday posts.
    A neighbor gave me Gladiolus murielae last year, and we are now debating if it is white enough for the white garden. The white certainly is white, but the dark reddish center is not.

    • thebikinggardener
      July 23, 2021 at 10:19 am #

      I think I would forgive the small red centre and regard it as white.

      • tonytomeo
        July 24, 2021 at 11:51 pm #

        Yes, that seems to be the consensus with others who I ask about the ‘whiteness’. They perceive it to be white with a ‘dark’ center, rather than a ‘red’ or ‘maroon’ center. It is no worse than the yellow spadix of callas. I am not convinced. I may install them eventually, but would prefer to find whiter flowers.

  2. Paddy Tobin
    July 23, 2021 at 10:50 am #

    Two beautiful plants though there was a groan from the Head Gardener when I said the veronicas were beautiful; something along the lines of “Oh, I hate veronicas!” I like them.

    • thebikinggardener
      July 23, 2021 at 11:27 am #

      I am surprised that the Head Gardener ‘hates’ them. They are hardly plants that I would have thought were divisive enough to ‘hate’. I can understand why they might be ignored. But it is good we don’t all like the same things.

      • Paddy Tobin
        July 23, 2021 at 2:01 pm #

        Strong tastes here! It’s a love it or hate it situation. LOL I love them in blue!

  3. Jackie Knight
    July 25, 2021 at 9:34 am #

    Well I love the Veronicas, and have them in my garden. The acidanthera are wonderful must look into trying those, thanks for the info on growing them.

    • thebikinggardener
      July 25, 2021 at 9:55 am #

      I even like the little blue speedwells in the lawn. And now that hebes are veronicas again there are more to like!

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