Visitors to the garden often want to know the name of the plant with the spiky green leaves and pretty white flowers and lately I’m not quite sure what to tell them. It’s one thing for a plant to have several common names but this one seems to have more Latin names than a list of Roman dictators. I always knew the plant as Acidanthera bicolor or Acidanthera murielae and, in fact, that’s the name that appears on the package of bulbs when I buy them. However, you will also see the plant listed as either Gladiolus murielae, or Gladiolus callianthus, or even Gladiolus acidanthera. The plant’s common name is Peacock Orchid, but for clarity's sake let’s stick to gladiolas and not even bring orchids into the discussion at this point. This entry from Wikipedia might help explain some of the confusion over the plant's taxonomy:
“The species was first described as Acidanthera bicolor by Christian Hochstetter in 1844. In 1973, Wessel Marais included the genus Acidanthera in Gladiolus. As the name Gladiolus bicolor had already been published by John Gilbert Baker in 1877 for a different species of Gladiolus, Marais needed another name. He chose to call the species Gladiolus callianthus. Marais was apparently unaware that James Kelway had already published the name Gladiolus murielae in 1932, so that the name "G. callianthus" was superfluous. The epithet murielae honours Muriel Erskine; her husband had collected in Ethiopia the specimen on which Kelway based the name. The species is often still offered for sale under the name Acidanthera bicolor, sometimes with murielae added as an infraspecific name, or even as the cultivar name 'Murielae’.”
I suppose I should start calling the plant Gladiolus callianthus or Gladiolus murielae but it's hard to break old habits. Once you've taken the time to memorize a plant's name--most of which don't exactly roll off the tongue--it's nice if you can stick to it. Not long ago, the botanists decided they would mess around with the naming of the Bugbanes and so now I have a hard time calling them by their new official name, "Actaea" instead of "Cimicifuga," their old official name which I was quite proud to have mastered after several years of practice.
Whatever name you wish to apply to the Peacock Orchid--Acidanthera or Gladiolus-- there's no denying it’s a striking plant in both flower and foliage. It’s spear-shaped green leaves resemble those of both Iris and Crocosmia and, even before it flowers, its foliage makes a dramatic statement, like an exclamation point when used in a border. When it does bloom, its fragrant funnel-shaped white flowers dance in the breeze atop long slender stems.
You plant the bulbs of Acidanthera in the spring and the flowers will show up on the 18-24” plant sometime in early August and will continue to delight until frost. We plant the bulbs in large clumps ( I think they look better when gathered together) but they also look great in containers. For us, here in New Hampshire, the bulbs are not winter-hardy but they are relatively inexpensive and so we just replant bunches of them every spring. For those who have been to one too many funerals and have a negative association with gladiolas, you will be happy to know that finally, here is a gladiola that will cheer you up instead of reminding you of Uncle Ted's last appearance.