African Odyssey

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Gladiolus murielae
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Gladiolus murielae

Gladiolus murielae

It’s been a long, hot summer. For many gardeners, that’s meant a constant struggle to keep plants watered, but here at Heronswood, our African plants have thrived. As a largely tropical continent, Africa offers little for Pacific Northwest gardens. Agapanthus and pineapple lilies (Eucomis) are prominent exceptions and Heronswood mainstays. But there’s a trio of exotics flowering now that are worth a visit: Ethiopian acanthus (Acanthus sennii), Cooper’s aloe (Aloe cooperi) and peacock gladiolus (Gladiolus murielae).

Garden fashions come and go and gladioli seem to have fallen out of favour; well, some of them. Blousy hybrids with their garish colours and frilly petals are no longer a staple of every yard, but species gladioli are on the up. Wild collected, these untamed plants produce multicolor blooms in delicate spires. They are choice, refined and easy to add to well-planted sunny borders. While most are natives of southern Africa, Gladiolus murielae ranges from Ethiopia to Malawi and an exquisite fragrance lingers in its white blooms. Given its equatorial
origins, the corms cannot tough it out through our winters should be lifted in fall and stored dry until spring. You can find peacock gladiolus strutting its stuff in our events area at the south end of the garden, where it’s a
perfect complement for blushing brides.

Also from Ethiopia, Acanthus sennii is unlike its common herbaceous relatives, bear’s breeches (A. spinosus, A. mollis). Not only is it a shrub, but it is lacks their invasive nature. In part, this is because the worst winter weather kills it back to ground level, though it usually resprouts. Even without flowers, its prickly leaves etched in silver are delightful, but this year’s summer heat has brought on a much-anticipated bloom. And it’s not the washed-out pink of typical bear’s breeches, but a vivid
orange-red.

Sitting just inside our entrance gate, Acanthus sennii is beginning to flower, but within the same border, Aloe cooperi has been holding court for several weeks. Also orange, though tipped with yellow and green, the flowers bring candy corn to mind. Very few aloes are frost-hardy – most turn to mush when exposed to cold – but this one has lived through several winters, gradually spreading. Join us at Heronswood for a botanical safari and see the best blooms that Africa has to offer.

– Ross Bayton, Heronswood Taxonomist

 
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