Florists, the men and women who have cultivated and improved flowers through the centuries, have tended to concentrate on certain genera for which they could create the greatest demand. These florists’ flowers, as they are known, have been developed by the hybridization of a few species and the continual selection from further crosses of new forms.
The florists’ standards of excellence have undoubtedly brought many benefits. Roses, for instance, could never have achieved their fantastic popularity if they still resembled their remote and modest ancestors. But the florists’ zeal in the pursuit of flower power has often resulted in disastrous side effects. These are sometimes of a material kind, such as susceptibility to disease, or of an artistic nature, when the end product has become so bloated that new standards have at last started a trend in a different direction.
The flower-arranging movement over the years has played an important part in this counter-revolution. Gladioli on offer were all, in the quite recent past, of the brilliant yet top-heavy, large-flowered types that win prizes in local flower shows. But they make awkward plants to manage. In the garden they must be staked; picked for the house they sway and lurch ungovernably unless stuffed into a narrow chimney-pot-shaped vase.
Yet the gladiolus should be an ideal cut flower and to satisfy this demand the far less clumsy `Butterfly’ strain and the still more elegant Trimulinus’ hybrids with hooded flowers have been bred. Even more to my taste are the `Nanus’which can be treated as hardy perennials in some gardens, if planted in sheltered borders. Flowering early, in late June and July, they grow only 60cm (2ft) tall and need no support. As they leave a gap after flowering, the best way is to interplant them with low-growing perennials like catmint. The reason they need is because their foliage appears in the autumn and suffers from frosts if severe. The carmine red `Robinetta’ is one of the most vigoroous and quickly spreading. It contrasts well with ‘The Bride’ and `Albus’ which are pure white.
Some of the wild gladiolus species, notably the green-flowered G. tristis, are deliciously night-scented and these have been hybridized a little giving us, for instance, Christabel , which has retained the scent: however, it is seldom offered and we need to take more interest in these lovely bird-like flowers. A satiety of florists’ flowers often makes us wish to return to the charms of the original species although, alas, some of these have now vanished, and there is an urgent necessity for a gene bank of flower species as there is for cereals.
The florists’are an example of man’s desire for double flowers. Single, daisy-type chrysanthemums rarely win the highest awards in shows and the same can be said of . With both, increase in flower size has inevitably been accompanied by increase in leaf size so that the charmingly cut leaves of dahlia and species have been replaced by coarse leathery foliage utterly devoid of charm. These vigorous chrysanthemums attain a most inconvenient height, but man’s inventiveness has devised a dwarfing hormone spray that can keep them at the height of pygmies without reducing their flower size. Luckily for sanity there is an insatiable demand from the flower arrangers for spray chrysanthemums with long stems that have not been disbudded, and hence have small flowers.
We still have too few hardy chrysanthemums of a convenient height and reasonably early flowering that we can safely grow in our flower borders as permanencies. They tend to die out and so need lifting and overwintering under cover.
The florists’ cyclamens were all developed, without hybridization, from the one species,persicum, which grows wild on the littoral of the eastern Mediterranean, usually in the dry-wall stone terracing between cultivated patches. The Arab name for it means gazelle’s horns and you can see why, in the elegance of the unimproved plant with its slender, spirally twisted upward-pointing petals. The scent of this wilding is delicious and powerful but is apt to be lost almost as soon as improvement by selection starts.
As for the rose as a florists’ flower – a sad fact it is that the more popular a flower becomes, the more difficulties attend its cultivation. The answer, surely, is not to specialize. Grow a wide range of plants and you’ll sleep soundly at night.