Observations in a Small Garden

By: Richard G Turner Jr

Richard G Turner Jr is the editor emeritus of Pacific Horticulture. After receiving degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from…

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Common and easy in gardens, winter-growing Gladiolus venustus made a dazzling display along roadsides on our wildflower tour of South Africa in 2001. Photograph by Peter Goldblatt

Common and easy in gardens, winter-growing Gladiolus venustus made a dazzling display along roadsides on our wildflower tour of South Africa in 2001. Photograph by Peter Goldblatt

I gave myself time on July fourth to simply relax in the garden and watch the comings and goings of birds and insects attracted to the flowers. High on the hillside, the scarlet blossoms of Delphinium cardinale drew an Anna’s hummingbird to their nectar-filled spurs. Curiously, when he—his colors gave his sex away—dropped to the bottom of the garden, he ignored an equally scarlet monkey flower (Mimulus cardinalis), favoring, instead, salmon pink Stachys albotomentosa, various coral pelargoniums, and a dusty pink abutilon. Watching closely, I realized that he was often stealing from the abutilon, approaching from the side, between the petals, without contacting the staminal column. The point of a flower offering nectar is to “reward” a pollinator for transferring pollen from one plant to another; this fellow was feeding without serving the flower’s needs at all.

Nearby were the last flowers of Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus, a native of southern Europe. A western swallowtail butterfly alighted, albeit briefly, on one of its fully open flowers. It had not occurred to me that butterflies might feed on gladiolus, and this one stayed such a short time that it was hard to tell his (her?) purpose. Nectar guides on the lower tepals seem to suggest that bees would be the primary pollinators; yet the platform created by the broad tepals was certainly accommodating for a butterfly. I’ll have to pay more attention next year.

I was reminded of the many species of Gladiolus we had seen in South Africa on our tour last year. For the most part, we saw single stems or small clumps of gladiolus, all growing from tiny corms below ground; occasionally broad drifts would catch our eye. All of the species were so delicate in appearance, giving little hint of any relationship to the giant hybrids seen in most North American gardens, even though these hybrids have been bred from a number of species originating in South Africa.

The diversity in the South African Gladiolus is outstanding (see page 22). Most intriguing were the fragrant ones; the fragrance of some carried great distances but disappeared when the flower was in our reach. The winner was G. liliaceus, which turned color at dusk and released a fragrance to attract night-flying moths. John Manning, our guide, picked a stem or two en route, then kept them in water until cocktail hour. As predicted—and much to John’s relief—the flowers had, indeed, turned color and become intoxicatingly fragrant.

The South African species are ideal for a sunny, dry rockery. With few exceptions, they survive the annual summer drought of the Cape Province by lying dormant below ground—just as most of our native bulbs do here on the West Coast.

Heading up onto my hillside, I noticed that the violet blue flowers of ‘Queen Fabiola’, a selection of our native Triteleia laxa, were fading; they had given me pleasure for nearly a month, as they have for the past eight years or more, in an area of the garden that gets no irrigation beyond the natural winter rains. Higher on the hill, Allium unifolium and Calochortus venustus seem to be making themselves at home under similar conditions, both having flowered earlier in the season.

I made a note to acquire more bulbs this fall for my dry hillside garden, including California natives as well as exotics like the gladiolus from South Africa. I’ll pay close attention to the exotics, however. If the local pollinators find them appealing, I could begin to see them naturalizing. I would not want to be responsible for introducing a new exotic weed to California, such as Gladiolus caryophyllaceus has become in southwestern Australia. The chance is slim, but the issue is one that we all need to be aware of as we play with plants from around the world in our West Coast gardens.