I love a good surprise and for me, by far the best surprise a few summers ago was the unexpected but delightful discovery of the beauty and fragrance of peacock orchid flowers (Gladiolus callianthus, syn. Acidanthera bicolor). I had bought one small bag of eight corms on a whim that spring, knowing nothing about them except that, according to the description on the package, they were tender (not winter-hardy in Calgary and the rest of the prairies) and fragrant. Fragrance was what I was after on that particular trip to the garden center so my choice was appropriate, and besides, the picture of the flower on the package was captivating. Beautiful large, creamy-white star-shaped blossoms with throats of the deepest mahogany winked at me from the cardboard wrapper - I couldn't resist!
Upon arriving at home with my purchase I promptly set it aside, only to forget about it until the middle of June, when it cheekily emerged from a neglected stash of gardening treasures. I knew it was quite late in the season for planting the corms - too late, really - but they still looked healthy so I decided, why not? In haste, I stuffed them into some ordinary potting soil in a small imitation Chinese pot, destined to adorn a corner of our small deck. Still knowing nothing about peacock orchids and not really caring either, I watered the newly planted pot and waited to see what would happen.
Now, if I had known that peacock orchids were related to gladiolas, I would never have bought them, for I am not fond of glads and that is putting it mildly. Imagine my dismay, then, when the first bright green leaves that issued forth from my Chinese pot were distinctly spear-like, dead wringers for the strappy, sword-shaped leaves of glads! A little finer maybe, a little narrower too, but for me that made no difference and my heart sank. With nothing else to replace them at that point of the season, however, I let them be, watering them regularly, but otherwise ignoring them.
By early August, I observed short flower spikes developing, each of which ended in a single, creamy white elongate bud. Naturally, this first set of buds was ready to unfold the day we left for holidays in mid-August. Oh well! Out of curiosity only, I hoped that, with a bit of luck, there would still be one or two blooming when we returned.
Two weeks later I found myself standing at the backdoor in the middle of the night, home from the holidays, a weary traveler fumbling for my keys in the dark after driving all the way from Victoria in one long day. I quickly gave up looking for the elusive keys, preferring to let Bob or Kate search for theirs when they emerged from the garage, and as I paused, I was enveloped by a most amazing, but unfamiliar fragrance. I let it wash over me, wondering idly what plants were responsible for the enchanting greeting hanging in the air, and what's more, who had planted them!
It didn't take long for me to discover the source of this astonishingly lovely perfume. The exotic blossoms of peacock orchids in full bloom - the very ones I had planted so carelessly weeks before - were weaving their magic in the night. And the magic continued for weeks, with one fragrant blossom after another opening in sequence from the bottom up, on ever-lengthening flower spikes, with the show finally coming to an end in late September. Was I surprised? Yes! Delighted? Absolutely - so much so, in fact, that I have forgiven them their strappy foliage and pot up several containers every summer. Ialso intersperse several bold clumps in sunny perennial borders, especially those that are close to the house or border walkways.
Peacock orchids are native to Ethiopia, so understandably are not hardy here in Calgary, but their prolonged period of bloom late in the growing season and their wonderful fragrance makes them worthy of inclusion in any planting scheme. They are easy to grow and virtually trouble-free.
Buy corms at a local garden centre (they will be found included in the bulb displays) or order from a reputable mail-order business, and plant them outdoors in the spring a few weeks prior to the last expected frosty night (right!). Because they are late-bloomers you might prefer to give them a head start indoors in pots, and move them out onto the patio or transplant them into the flower border when all danger of frost has passed.
Peacock orchids prefer a sheltered, sunny site with well-drained fertile soil, enriched with compost or well-rotted manure. Plant them 4 - 6 inches deep and with a similar spacing, giving a light dusting of a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer when the leaves first appear and again four weeks later. Water well, especially from the time they leaf out until the time they bloom; after that keep them moist, not wet, and gradually withhold water as the growing season comes to an end. You may wish to stake them when they are about a foot high, to protect them from prairie breezes, but I didn't find that necessary for my collection, perhaps because they were very densely planted in a small pot.
When your peacock orchids finally finish blooming you have two choices: treat them as annuals and plan on replacing the corms, which are every inexpensive, in the spring, or lift them as you would other tender bulbs to be stored in a cool dry place and replanted in the spring.
Liesbeth Leatherbarrow is a freelance garden writer who has enjoyed spending the last twenty years mastering the techniques of Chinook zone gardening in Calgary, Alberta. Liesbeth has written for several western gardening publications, including Gardens West and The Gardener for the Prairies. She has also co-authored three gardening books: The Calgary Gardener (with the Calgary Horticultural Society), The Calgary Gardener, Volume Two: Beyond the Basics (with Lesley Reynolds), and 101 Best Plants for the Prairies (with Lesley Reynolds), which will be available in bookstores in November, 1999.