by Tony Avent
illustration by Ippy Patterson
Growing up in North Carolina, it’s not uncommon to see gladiolus growing along country roads through older rural communities. For that reason, I could never reconcile why all the gladiolus I ordered from mail-order catalogs never lived through the winter. Was my thumb really that black?
It wasn’t until I visited Holland in 2004 and toured a commercial gladiolus breeder that I had a gladiolus a-ha moment. As we walked the fields, admiring the amazing gladiolus, I inquired how many of them had good winter hardiness. To my surprise, the breeder replied: None. He went on to explain that he and his colleagues breed gladiolus so they won’t survive the winter. I was taken aback by the answer, and asked him how many daffodils he would sell if none were winter hardy? This prompted a rather curious look, as if that thought had never occurred to him.
Incredulous at my discovery, I returned home and resumed my search for winter-hardy glads. As I researched gladiolus breeding, I learned that almost all gladiolus hybridized and introduced before the early 1960s were perfectly winter hardy in our climate. Some time after then, gladiolus became annuals.
So I began collecting what are known as heirloom glads – plants with a heritage of 50 to 100 years. Some of the plants I have since acquired and grown are indeed great garden specimens, although those bred specifically as cut flowers aren’t particularly sturdy when fully open in the garden unless they’re staked.
I found one of my favorites on a trip to England nearly a decade ago. I was visiting my friend Bob Brown’s nursery, Cotswold Garden Flowers, which is always a favorite stop for exceptional new and interesting plants. I had my wagon nearly full when I spied a dormant pot with a tag: Gladiolus “Purple Prince.” Into the cart it went to be inspected for its journey back to N.C.
The new acquisition was planted along with other gladiolus in our trial garden, and when it came into flower the following June, I was smitten. The spikes that open in early June are composed of large dark purple flowers and put on an incredible show. For us, Purple Prince is an amazing garden specimen, which, if you’re so inclined, yields several vases of flowers each year.
Almost ten years went by before I was able to finally track down its origin. It seems that Purple Prince is a recently bred hybrid by Hermien Challa, a small independent Dutch breeder. Because most of the large Dutch growers don’t want their gladiolus to be winter hardy, it’s no wonder that virtually none of Challa’s hybrids appear in the mainstream bulb catalogs. But we’ll continue to grow and tout the virtue of this great gladiolus!
Better go now … it’s time to cut some Purple Prince for Anita.