Freddie’s Complete Guide to Gladioli

Gladdies! They’re tall, splendid, slightly rude and perfect for waving around your head in a state of uncontrolled joy. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about gladioli but were afraid to ask…

Consider the sword-lilies.

Yes that’s their nickname – ‘gladius’ is the Latin word for a sword, a ‘gladiator’ is a swordsman and ‘gladiolus’ is the Ancient Roman for a ‘little sword’., which they sort of look a bit like.

There are over 250 species within the genus Gladiolus, the majority of which are native to South Africa, and wild species can be very small with flowers no more than a few centimetres across. But they’ve been incredibly popular as cut flowers since they were brought to Europe in the 18th Century, and several hundred years of selection and breeding by floriculturists like Victor Lemoine have given us the glorious gladioli we enjoy today.

Vase with Red Gladioli (1886) by Vincent van Gogh
Vase with Red Gladioli (1886) by Vincent van Gogh
They are even quite easy to grow yourself. Plant the bulbs in the spring, give them plenty of water and they should flower through the summer and autumn (there’s a good guide to growing gladioli for keen gardeners here).

And we love glads in vases – they bring height, colour and character to an arrangement, or you can just display them on their own: great tall spikes bursting with loveliness.

 

The Great Gladioli Debate

But despite all that, the gladiolus is something of a controversial flower. Debate rages amongst flower folk up and down the land. So, as a public service, we thought we’d try to provide definitive answers to the most challenging questions people ask us about the sword-lily. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about gladioli but were afraid to ask…

 

Wasn’t there somebody very famous associated with gladioli in some way?

frank neuhauser

 

Yes indeed! The one and only Frank Neuhauser (above, signing autographs in his old age). As an 11 year-old boy he won the first ever US National Spelling Bee in 1925 and became an American hero. He made it to the finals after over two million children were whittled down to just nine, and in the last round he triumphed by successfully spelling the word gladiolus.

Neuhauser was awarded 500 dollars in gold pieces, met President Calvin Coolidge, and his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky gave a parade in his honor and presented him with bouquets of gladioli. Quite a story.

 

 

No not him – somebody who was very big in the 1980s and used to wave them around on stage. Who was that again?

Ah right. Yes, you’re thinking of Morrissey, the famously eccentric lead singer of cult Manchester band The Smiths. He loved nothing more than to twirl a bunch around when performing…

 

Not him either! I mean Dame Edna Everage of course! Why did Dame Edna wave gladioli at her audiences?

Very well. This is the big one. Just why did Dame Edna Everage – the monstrous suburban Melbourne housewife/global superstar created by Barry Humphries – choose the gladiolus as her signature flower?

There’s no denying that Dame Edna was seriously big on gladdies. She closed her stage shows with a song and dance number called ‘Wave that Glad’ and there’s even a statue of her in Melbourne holding a massive bunch of them.

Well, there are three possible explanations. One is that she treated her audiences as the enemy, so the ‘sword-lily’ was a perfectly appropriate combative plant. Another is that, as well as meaning ‘little sword’, gladiolus was the Ancient Roman slang for the…ahem… male appendage. So a bit of classical smutty humour was right up Dame Edna’s alley.

But the most likely explanation is that since Barry Humphries was satirising Australian suburbia, gladioli must have been considered a bit, well, naff, back then. It happened to a lot of the big, showy flowers that were fashionable in the Edwardian era – they went out of style for a while with people who wanted something more ‘exotic’ or wildflower-like.

However, nobody worries about that any more – gladdies are back, and in big way!

 

So gladioli are cool again? Great!

Of course they are. And who cares anyway – if great, glorious, towering, lovely things like gladioli are uncool then we never want to be cool!

In fact, we were thinking of forming a Gladioli Appreciation Society, but it turns out that one already exists. It’s 90 years old and still going strong. More power to them –  may their sword-lilies never wilt!

Renoir - Gladioli in a Vase (1875). National Gallery.
Renoir – Gladioli in a Vase (1875). National Gallery

 

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