By Julie Martens Forney
Infuse summer nights with a burst of fragrance, courtesy of peacock orchids. This easy-growing summer bulb delivers all season long with swordlike foliage. But the real payoff comes in late summer, when fragrant flowers appear. This is the perfect plant-it-and-forget-it container garden plant for your patio. All you need to do is water and wait for the show.
Peacock orchid is an heirloom dating to 1896, which is probably why it has a host of names, including star gladiolus, acidanthera, Abyssinian gladiolus, and African gladiolus. Botanically it belongs to the gladiolus family (its official name is Gladiolus callianthus). This summer bulb is one of the best bargains. Five dollars yields two 12-inch container gardens guaranteed to wow.
Plant the Bulbs
Plant these in a commercial mix designed for container gardens. Use 10 bulbs per 12-inch pot, 20 per 16-inch pot. Tuck bulbs into soil 5 inches deep. Keep the final soil level about 2 inches below the pot rim. This helps with watering in late summer.
Add a Saucer
Peacock orchid provides vertical interest, with pointed, upright leaves that grow 2 feet tall. Use it to stage a backdrop for other container gardens. Once summer heat arrives, slip a saucer under the pot to catch excess water and ensure leaves get ample moisture. It’s also a good idea to give this summer bulb a spot protected from wind.
Enjoy the Show
Flower spikes appear in late summer in the Mid-Atlantic, anywhere from early August in warmer parts of the region to September in cooler areas. Individual blooms can last up to a few days. This pot of peacock orchids, right, survived a direct hit from straight-line winds but required a string to hold leaves upright. Tough as nails, this heirloom summer bulb still bloomed after surviving the wind strike.
Store for Winter
Let pots sit outside until frost arrives—but don’t let the soil freeze. Cut off leaves, adding them to your compost pile. Bring pots of peacock orchid into an attached garage or cool basement. Let the pots dry down, so soil dries out. This provides perfect winter storage conditions.
Water in Spring
In spring, when all danger of frost is past, place pots outdoors in full sun and start watering. To kick off the growing season, I like to remove an inch or two of soil and replace it with fresh soil mixed with a little compost. Repot and divide when flower numbers decrease.
Use this same technique to grow other summer bulbs in pots, including calla lilies, dahlias, and caladiums.