Searching for the UK’s wild gladiolus
David Beeson, 23rd June 2020
Gladiolus illyricus is found only in the New Forest. This is no garden escape; it is a true wild UK plant, just very rare. The plant was only ‘discovered’ in 1856, but must have been hiding away for hundreds of years and ignored by botanists.
The plant is described as ‘widespread but local’ in the forest, and I first looked for it when I was around 12 years old … woops, some 60 years ago. My elder brother was keen on plants and he was the driving force in seeking out the gladiolus. We never found it and I’ve not looked for it since … until June 23rd.
The Flora of Hampshire describes flushes of populations but that the species is declining. The loss could be due to grazing and browsing pressure from horses and deer, scrub encroachment or conversely the increase in heathers. Wild fires and bracken clearance will also be negative for the species. For illyricus is mostly content to survive half-hidden amongst the bracken on grassy heaths.
Ace botanists, Betty and Tony Rackham, had many years ago mentioned they had discovered a location for the gladiolus, yet time was then against us and a personal search didn’t happen. Now, with less social interactions and no need to work for a living, time was available in the middle of the plant’s flowering period.
The target location was in the forest near both The Reptile Centre and The Ornamental Drive, just to the west of Lyndhurst. Flowering being said to occur in June and July.
Gladiolus illyricus is specially protected by law and is described: ‘one of the most beautiful and prized species in Hampshire.’ It is illegal to pick, uproot or disturb or sell plants. It is said to be pollinated by large skipper butterflies, so looking out for them would be useful. But, does only one species of butterfly carry out the pollination? Unlikely.
The car is parked, boots on and cameras (yes, two!) to hand and Annette and I set out.
The area is indeed suitable: grassy banks, a gentle stream cutting through a sandy topsoil with gravel some half-a-metre down. A bit of scrub and a few mature trees. No sign of disturbance from human activity, while moles have been busy. There are ‘wild’ ponies around, but just a couple, so overgrazing should not be an issue on this site. Being near the main concentrations of fallow deer some had to be expected, and two were quietly grazing in the distance. And, the weather was set fair with good sun and a little breeze. All positive, but butterflies? Not a skipper to be seen in three hours of wandering.
We criss-crossed the grassy-bracken zones, wandered the woodland edge and explored the slightly damper patches.
The photo-essay should set the scene.
With no luck on this northern site, we moved across the road to a slightly more wooded environment.
Well, did we find the plant? No. Guess we will have to try somewhere else another year. Did we enjoy ourselves? Yes, it was a delightful exploration and indeed a great way to spend some time in The New Forest.
Why did we not find the plant? A good question. We believe our information was correct. The location ideal, yet, the weather has been unusual again this year. Did the steamingly hot June advance flowering, such that even the leaves have died back? Perhaps a local insect population has exploded and eaten the corms. I do not know. So, answers on a postcard to …. .
So, exploration are not always successful. It that a problem? In this case, no. Let’s try again next year.