Virtually all of the woodland in the eastern U.S. is secondary forest that has grown up in fields left fallow when the focus of agriculture moved west in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The eastern deciduous forest grows back rapidly, but if you look closely, you can still see traces of the former inhabitants: the sunken course of an abandoned road, old trees whose shape indicates that they first grew in open fields, the remains of a stone foundation or chimney. Occasionally, plants from abandoned gardens will persist in the shade of the new trees long after buildings have rotted away.
At the bottom of our property and extending onto our neighbors’ land is a grove of eight mature white oaks (Quercus alba) with broad, spreading branches. And at the center of the oaks, surrounded by weedy young pine trees, is the remains of an abandoned homestead. The crumbling stone and brick chimney sits on our neighbors’ land, and on the edge of our property is an odd square of bricks filled with very dark soil. I wonder if it might be the foundation of the old outhouse.
In early spring, the ground around the chimney and under the oaks is carpeted with thousands of bright yellow daffodils. They must have been planted by someone who lived in the house, and I’m sure they will still be there long after the chimney has crumbled. Later in the spring, as the daffodil foliage fades, a few clumps of sword-shaped leaves grow up. These are gladiolus, but they rarely bloom in the shade of the oaks. Those few inflorescences that do appear are often nipped off by deer.
About five years ago, I dug up a couple of the gladiolus corms and moved them to a sunny flower bed beside our driveway. In the richer soil, protected from deer by the fence, they have thrived, multiplying rapidly and forming large clumps topped with bright orange flowers in June.
As you can see, the plants are very different from modern gladiolus hybrids. They appear to be a very tall (up to 6 ft) form of the South African species Gladiolus dalenii, or perhaps a very early hybrid with a lot of G. dalenii in its makeup. To help keep track of them when I give away excess corms to other local gardeners, I have given them the informal cultivar name Gladiolus ‘Eno Orange,’ referring to their color and the place where they were found: Orange County near the Eno River.
So how long have these plants been hiding in the woods? Gladiolus dalenii is one of the foundation species in the ancestry of the large-flowered hybrids, and breeding was well under way by the second half of the nineteenth century. Once those improved hybrids became available, I can’t imagine that something like Gladiolus ‘Eno Orange’, with its rather ungainly spikes and widely spaced flowers, would have been tremendously popular with the average gardener. On the other hand, I like it, so maybe other gardeners did too. I wonder if it is an old “pass-along” plant that has been traded among gardeners since the early days of gladiolus cultivation.
To see if I could learn anything more, I wrote to the niece of the woman who was the last inhabitant of the abandoned house. She replied that her late aunt could have obtained the corms from her mother, my correspondent’s grandmother. The family has lived in Orange County since before the civil war–the family patriarch was a former slave who became a successful farmer and land owner after emancipation–so is it possible that this Gladiolus was passed down from parent to child for a century or more before it finally ended up in the woods near our house?
I suppose I’ll never know for sure, but whenever I see the bright orange flowers, I’m reminded of the people who lived here before us.