Thursday, March 15, 2012

Gardening: Keep an eye out for Acidanthera

I hate flowers – I paint them because they're cheaper than models and they don't move. – Georgia O'Keeffe 

Gladiolus callianthus "Muriaelae", otherwise known as Acidanthera.
Photo: KingsbraeGarden, Flickr ccl
It’s a beautiful day here in Nova Scotia... The temperature is right around freezing and there’s a combination of freezing rain and snow blanketing the province. Driving, to say the least, is treacherous.

The last hurrah of winter?
In Atlantic Canada we call this sort of weather “Sheila’s Broom” or Sheila’s Brush. The story goes that she was the wife (or sister or mother) of St. Patrick. Long before he became a saint he came home drunk after a night out with the boys. His irate wife went after him with a broom and chased him out of the house.

Photo: brianpettinger, Flickr ccl
It’s interesting that around St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) we always seem to have some sort of final winter weather event that “sweeps” the winter season away. Sheelagh also is a nickname for a wind storm in Newfoundland and Labrador.

So what better activity is there to enjoy on a Sheila’s Broom day than to dream of our upcoming gardens? All, or nearly all, the seed and plant catalogues have arrived so we have plenty of reading material.

One to watch for...
There’s one plant in particular that I think is worth your consideration. It's a wonder that it's not more common in gardens. It’s related to gladiolas so has to be dug up and saved inside overwinter but they’re so worth that minimal effort. They’re called acidanthera. 

Acidanthera (Gladiolus callianthus ‘Muriaelae’) is sometimes called the peacock orchid, but it is not related to orchids in any way. It’s just “fancy.” Sometimes now you will find them in gardening books and plant stores under the name Callianthus, but don’t worry, there’s no mistaking these plants for anything else.

Acidanthera grow from a corm, a sort of a tuber where the plant originates every year. The corm is where the plant gets its energy to grow. The corm regenerates as the plant grows so you have a new corm, or several smaller ones, at the end of the season.

Corms and bulbs
What’s the difference between a corm and a bulb? The difference is that corms are nearly solid, whereas bulbs are composed of scales which make up the food storage. Think of a lily bulb, or even an onion for examples of bulbs. Common "corm" flowers are crocosmia and gladiolus, of course.

From Wikipedia:
Corms are parts of stems that are internally structured with solid tissues, which distinguishes them from bulbs, which are mostly made up of layered fleshy scales that are modified leaves. As a result, when a corm is cut in half it is solid, but when a true bulb is cut in half it is made up of layers. Corms are structurally plant stems, with nodes and internodes with buds and produce adventitious roots. On the top of the corm, one or a few buds grow into shoots that produce normal leaves and flowers.

Photo: ignote, Flickr ccl

But back to the topic...
Acidanthera bloom in late summer, which is a blessing when almost everything else has already begun to pass into dormancy. They begin blooming in late August if planted early enough. I have had acidanthera flowering well into October here in Nova Scotia. They were beautiful.

These exotic flora were first introduced to gardeners in 1896. The plants and flowers are hard to describe in words. Think of gladiolas with broad flat leaves, but the emerging flowers are nodding, long tubes with the “flower” on the end. 

And what a trumpet. Pure white except for a chocolatey-purple star inside. They have a sweet fragrance and bloom from the lower portion of the stock up to the very tip. The entire plant can reach up to 40” high.

Store inside over winter
Acidanthera are only hardy in Zones 7-10 which means after the frost has killed the plant you need to dig up the corms and store them in a dry place in the dark. Or at least here in Zone 5-6 you have to. Something like sawdust or wood shavings is an ideal medium. Just put them in a bag, leave them in the dark and replant when all chance of frost and freezing outside have passed.

Of course, if you wish you can just leave them in the ground and start over fresh next year. I find that the new corms don’t have the energy of purchased ones so I have done that in the past. You may get leaves from the small ones, but flowers are not guaranteed…

Perhaps the idea is to plant your saved ones and buy new. The saved ones will increase in size by growing leaves and the newly purchased ones will flower. In that way you will continually have a supply of fat corms for flowers and smaller ones that increase and bloom the next year.

Acidanthera are definitely worth the (minimal) cost and (slight) effort to store the bulbs. Just remember, like gladiolas, they look best planted in a mass. If given a rich, well draining spot, they will put on a show for you that will last for months.


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