We are spoilt this August for sport; there’s the men’s England Test Cricket, the women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland and arguably the most spectacular the 2017 British Athletics Championship in London. As TV viewers we get to see up close the winning and the failing (Usain Bolt, 100m final) of these world class athletes. Seeing the dedication of these sporting folk you can not but admire their strength, their skill, their stamina. How they enter the arena ready to battle; determined, steely, unerring. The Gladiators of our time.
There’s a flower for these athletic sporting gods – the Gladioli. Tall, strong, upright with a striking presence – the gladioli say resolve, fidelity, sincerity, integrity, and perseverance. A meaning from Roman times when gladiators literally fought to the death. Gladioli (reportedly named by Pliny the elder) were seen as a sign of luck and protection and when a gladiator won, he was showered with the flowers. Today, cycle racing has the phrase ‘to the death or to the gladioli’ and participants in walking events are often presented with gladioli at the finish line.
As there are many kinds of field and track competitors, there are some 300 species of gladioli with 10,000 registered cultivars in many colours ( white, red, yellow, pink, purple, orange, cream). Also known as sword-lillies (for their spike shaped leaves), one narrow stem produces several aromatic blooms, all the way up.
Most gladioli originated in Africa and Asia where they flourished in temperate conditions. They came to Europe in the 1740s by travellers from South Africa following the Indian Trade Route. European botanists and hobbyist loved them almost immediately. By 1806, William Herbert had produced the first hybrid. By 1840 and 1850, hundreds of varieties of gladiolus were being bred.
As technology and knowledge advancements have improved the sporting ability of modern athletes so have glads been highly hybridized. Indeed thousands of crosses over the past 200 years have brought us to the spectacular giant flower spikes we see today. And new ones appear every year.
But it’s most probably the South African species that are responsible for the wide diversity of colour, form and variations we see today. And there’s another interesting thing about glads; they have both male and female parts.
So there’s Gladiolus nanus, Charming Lady for Caster Semenya – the most talked-about track and field athlete at this year’s London games (and Olympic Champion).
The South African is causing a stir not for her performance in the 800m and 1500m events but for investigations about her gender. (In 2009 she was ‘gender tested’ and found to have hyperandrogenism (her body naturally produces levels of testosterone about 3 times higher than an average woman. A leaked report then suggested she has no womb or ovaries but internal testes instead because of a very rare chromosomal abnormality.) The Olympic Committee keep changing their mind on gender ‘rules’ (Seb Coe is now challenging the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) recent ruling that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) need to evidence the performance advantage provided by increased levels of the hormone) and so she’s found herself once again embroiled in spiteful scrutiny and debate. There’s serious talk of her being forced to take hormone suppressants.
“She has been catapulted into a misogynistic witch hunt that proves that, regardless of what a woman achieves, she will always be questioned or undermined. While the media slate, Semenya has remained silent, presumably distressed and sick of the slander.” (The Independent)
Gladiolus have long had been considered ambivalent; an integral part of the stage performances of both Dame Edna Everage (man as an OTT suburban housewife) and Morrissey (as an homage to Oscar Wilde) and as fashionable flowers (currently considered ‘in’). Sharing then this pretty pink variety of Gladioli, with it’s proud female parts, is perhaps a fitting way to show Caster our sisterly solidarity.