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Wild gladiolus (Gladiolus illyricus)

Where: Amongst bracken at woodland and heathland edges
When: June - July
How many: Wild Gladiolus plants occur in a relatively small number of colonies that have moderate numbers of plants in each
Wild gladiolus
Wild gladiolus

An illustrious member of the iris family, the wild gladiolus is one of the gems of the New Forest.

Primarily a native of mainland southern and western Europe, the wild gladiolus occurs nowhere else in Britain, and in the New Forest is at the northern edge of its range. Here the wild gladiolus is confined to around 40-50 sites.

A distinctive, relatively tall, hairless perennial with sword-shaped leaves, the prominent six-petalled wild gladiolus flowers appear in June and July and are a striking reddy-purple in colour. Corms – swollen, underground stems - are present for use as food-storage mechanisms, whilst pollination is by large skipper butterflies.

Wild gladiolus plants are surprisingly difficult to see below their favoured canopy of bracken on grassy heathland / woodland-edges, but, shamefully, have in the past been much subject to picking. Henry Bury, writing in 1951, has this: ‘…the wild gladiolus still survives. But one wonders how long it will be allowed to remain; for in plants, as in women, beauty is apt to be a ‘fatal gift’, and there are always plenty of vandals ready to dig up and carry away any attractive plant.’

Thankfully, though, the wild gladiolus is now protected under Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which makes it illegal to ‘pick, uproot, destroy or sell’ such species.

Wild gladiolus fortunes in the New Forest have, however, varied. Some populations have continued to flourish, whilst others have declined as a result of scrub and heather encroachment, attempts to eradicate bracken to improve grazing, and heathland burning. But grazing by commoners’ stock, and deer is considered to be of little consequence, for whilst the Wild Gladiolus is palatable, protection is offered by those covering fronds of bracken.

In the mid-19th century, writing of the New Forest, John Wise lists four localities where the wild gladiolus could be found, and notes that it had only recently been discovered in the New Forest, by the Rev. W.H. Lucas.

In Britain, the wild gladiolus is too rare to have attracted local names or folklore, but in parts of the United States, it is apparently known as the Gaudy Glad! Related species there are called Sword Lilies, a reference to the leaf shape - indeed, Gladiolus is Latin for small sword.

References:
Wild Flowers of the Escambia: http://wildflowers.jdcc.edu/Wild Gladiolus.html
The Flora of Hampshire: Anne Brewis, Paul Bowman and Francis Rose
The New Forest – A Natural History: Colin R. Tubbs
Collins New Generation Guide - Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe: Alastair Fitter
The New Forest: Its History and Scenery: John R. Wise
Botany.com: The Encyclopedia of Plants and Gardening: http://www.botany.com/gladiolus.html
Forestry Commission Guide to the New Forest, 1951

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Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley