If acidantheras had another name, they would undoubtedly fare better in the marketplace. Each spring, when the bins at local home-improvement stores are loaded with bulbs to charm and lure the eager gardener, acidantheras (or, as they’re sometimes called, peacock orchids) are there among their fellows. And almost without fail, when the rest of the bins echo with the sounds of dried bulb fragments and various bits of detritus tossed in by a caring public, the acidantheras bin is usually still well-stocked.
The latest scientific name is Gladiolus callianthus, for these corms (usually called bulbs) are close relatives of the glads. Gladiolus comes from a name used by Pliny as a diminutive of “gladius,” or sword, referring to the shape of the leaves. Older books use the genus/species Acidanthera bicolor or A. murielae (from the Greek words “akis” or point and “anthera” because they are cuspidate — a fancy botanical term for anthers that end in a sharp point).
Bulbs are usually modified subterranean leaf buds consisting of a short, thick stem crowded about with fleshy scales that serve as food-storage organs. Onions and lilies are fine examples. Corms, on the other hand, are very hard, solid, swollen parts of a stem, usually subterranean, that also store a bit of food to help the next season’s plant get a good start. Crocuses and glads are true corms.
Acidantheras produce tall spikes of extremely fragrant, creamy-white flowers with a deep-purple blotch in the throat; they open in sequence from bottom to top. Plants grow up to three-and-a-half feet tall, with the flowers measuring up to 4 inches across.
Many gardeners, sniffing the flowers by day, claim the blossoms have no scent at all. But they’re wrong and the flower is right. For as twilight deepens and the night sky turns to sequined velvet, the fragrance begins — and powerful is indeed the word. In Africa, the flowers are pollinated by long-tongued hawk moths; luckily, we have our own species of these silent night flyers here in the Carolinas, and you’ll often find seed pods form.
For best effect, group your plants in clusters in an area of the garden where their fragrance will be appreciated. They also make excellent cut flowers. And this is one place not to be stingy with your budget: Plant masses of acidantheras (at least 10 corms and probably up to 30).
After all danger of frost has passed, plant the corms in a good garden soil that’s been enriched with compost or well-rotted manure. Choose a location that gets full sun but is sheltered from strong winds. In their natural habitat, acidantheras prefer almost perfect drainage, so if your garden soil contains a lot of standing clay, break it up with compost to give these beauties a good start. One more suggestion: Remove the faded flowers. It encourages the spikes to branch out, producing more flowers and extending an already florific season.