This post may make no sense in a project celebrating Canada: How on Earth does a flower native to South Africa become so embedded in a Canadian family’s life?
But embedded it was, and is. I was shocked when I grew up to discover that gladioli, or glads, weren’t some kind of national flower or native to Canada. In my childhood, glads were everywhere.
The family gardens were lined with them. In the fall, my father would gently dig out the plants and rescue the corms from the ground, which would be sorted by into carefully labelled wood-framed metal-mesh rectangular trays that stacked up in our cold cellar for the winter. Ones that had developed a second corm would be separated and planted both anew in the spring. Sometimes, exotic colours would come up yellow the next year, which would cause my dad to mutter. I had no idea that glads in their native countries came up abundantly each year without the avoid-frost corm rescue.
My hometown florist, Bill Brox, also raised glads and entered the Horticulture Show Competition at the Canadian National Exhibition. I remember my father working with “old Mr. Brox” (to distinguish him from Mr. Brox, my father’s age, who was also in the family business) but I have no memory or records on how they fared in the competition. But this was serious. We’re talking driving 75 miles each way to deliver bouquets of flowers for judgment.
I’ve never had a garden where glads could grow well but I buy bundles of them when in season; Peeters Enterprises, a southern Ontario company that sells gladiolus corms, also grows flowers available in select farmers’ markets. Glads are such a lush, changeable and interactive flower. You start out with tall spikes and just a couple blooms at bottom. At their peak, you have a stem full of blooms. Even when the lower blooms fade, they can be plucked off, the stem shortened, and the top blooms gathered in a small vase to create a colourful ball of blossoms.
Our family weddings have not been complete without bouquets of glads, which are abundant in August (and apparently, both Britain and the U.S. consider gladioli the “birth flower” for that month, symbolizing moral integrity and sincerity.) When my parents married, my mother carried traditional roses, but her attendants carried sheaths of glads.
When my mother died in mid-December 2001, one of our biggest funeral-planning challenges was finding glads at a time of year when they’d need to be shipped from the planet’s other hemisphere. We could not imagine saying goodbye without her favourite flowers near. They weren’t prize winners, but we found enough after many frantic florist calls to fill a vase.
I’ll argue some things become Canadian because Canadians love them, even if they come from someplace else. To me, nothing symbolizes the hot days of a Canadian summer more than buckets of colourful glads along a roadside farm stand, just waiting to be wrapped up in a newspaper and carried home.
Main photo: Mary or Ted Teahen of their garden in Elmira, Ontario.