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Plant Profiles: Acidanthera

Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


That's a man fer ya

Late summer flowering bulb

Peacock orchid, Fragrant gladiolus

Full sun, superb drainage

Cold, soggy soil

Choose a south-facing site where the soil warms up quickly; plant in groups

Bulbous plant

I could hardly wait to tell you about Acidanthera bicolor var. murielae (syn. Gladiolus callianthus 'Muriaelae'). Believe you me, the pleasure is all mine. From the highlands of Ethiopia to the sandy loam of Canby, Oregon, the planet is all the sweeter for its smell. Doesn't matter how hot the day, crabby the mood, or disheveled the garden; its soft and sugary fragrance obliterates place and time.

I discovered the peacock orchid (don't let the common name mislead you, this is a gladiolus) at Fragrant Garden Nursery (formerly of Canby) in September, the same day my friend Esther and I overdid it big time at a dahlia ranch down the road. What a relief it was to soothe our retinas with this delicately tissue-petaled flower.

Save for its deliciously purple throat, the blossom itself is unaffected and unmistakable, like a white, spread-winged origami poised midflight. It dives from an arching stem, each stem producing six to ten flowers, which bloom in succession like a long-playing daylily, one flower lasting several days. Visualize that multiplied by dozens of stems - this flower begs for massing - and you've got about a month of gently perfumed skydiving swans.

The foliage is fresh green, ribbed, and sword-shaped, two to three feet high, emerging fairly late in the season (mine were planted in early spring, and didn't show growth till June). In less than full sun and less than fast drainage, the iris-like leaves may bend (at least they did for me), but the flower stems will be no less showy, even if the effect is not quite so pristine.

The ensemble is grace itself, particularly for a gladiolus; no "froufrouescence," as my friend Sean would say. And the big bonus is the late bloom time, from mid-August to mid-September - early enough to catch lingering summer-blooming perennials, late enough to usher in the newcomers of fall.

Clearly, you need this plant. The trick is growing it. In regions where winter temperatures are major league, plant acidantheras in April, then lift in fall and overwinter in paper bags. In more temperate regions, they should be hardy barring a catastrophic winter (read: 10° F). In the maritime Northwest, a greater challenge is preventing rot; the best advice I've heard is to top your already well-drained soil with several inches of sand or gravel and plant directly in that.

How much can you lose? Maybe $7.50 for a handful or two of bulbs. Pretty good odds for pure joy.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.