Saturday, January 26, 2013

The gladioli

Field gladiolus (Gladiolus italicus)

The gladioli are sometimes called the sword lily because of the sword-shaped leaves of the plants in this genus but the most widely-used English common name for these plants is simply gladiolus (plural gladioli, gladioluses or sometimes gladiolas). The name comes from Latin gladiator meaning swordsman from gladius "sword”.

The genus Gladiolus contains about 260 species, of which 250 are native to sub-Saharan Africa, mostly South Africa. About 10 species are native to Eurasia. There are 160 species of gladiolus endemic in southern Africa and 76 in tropical Africa.

Gladioli belong to a genus of flowering plants in the iris family. They are attractive, perennial herbs found in temperate climates. They grow from rounded, symmetrical corms that are enveloped in several layers of brownish fibrous tunics.

Several species of gladioli are found in the Mediterranean region. Three of these have been recorded in the Maltese islands. One species is very common especially in agricultural land. This species is known as common gladiolus but has several other common names including Italian gladiolus, field gladiolus, and common sword-lily. It is probably native to much of Eurasia, but it is well-known on other continents where it is a common weed, particularly of cultivated fields and waste places.

The beautiful flowers appear between March and May. It is quite common throughout the Maltese countryside preferring cultivated land, especially cereal fields. It can also be found along roadsides and on hillsides.

The pinkish-purplish flowers are borne on a spike-like stem that can grow a metre high and the flowers are often seen poking above the surrounding vegetation. The leaves are long and sword-like and grow straight out of the ground.

The common gladiolus evolved together with wheat in the Middle East and from there moved west into the Mediterranean region where it is now found growing. Its ability to live close to cereals has given it its Maltese name ħabb il-qamħ tar-raba’.

The gladiolus, which grows out of a corm, survives from one year to the next underground by producing a new corm before the end of the flowering season. The seeds are used to disperse and propagate new areas.

Two other species of gladioli have been recorded in the Maltese islands. Both are quite similar in appearance but are very rare and difficult to find. The southern gladiolus known in Maltese as ħabb il-qamħ tal-wied is restricted to rocky valleys.

This article was published in The Times on 20 May 2009. 

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