Glad to be Hairy

Hair can be an excellent identifying feature in plants as well as humans (and fortunately, plants don’t go round changing their hair style). It might be the presence or absence of hairs, or even the type of hairs, whether they are long or short, simple or star-shaped, or even glandular and sticky. Often a good hand lens is needed to see what is going on but sometimes it is enough to just see where the hairs are on the plant. Although the flowering spike of Gladiolus is the feature that draws your attention, it is always worth seeing whether there are also hairs present on the stem or leaves. Sometimes, these hairs can be confined to the sheaths at the very base of the stem, but in the case of Gladiolus hirsutus the whole stem and most of the leaves are very obviously hairy.

Gladiolus hirsutus (Iridaceae) in the fynbos

Gladiolus hirsutus pokes its flowers above the restios

Hairy stem and leaf of Gladiolus hirsutus (Iridaceae)

Long stiff hairs are easily visible on the stem and leaf of Gladiolus hirsutus

As its scientific name implies, Gladiolus hirsutus, has prominent hairs (“hirsutus” means to be covered with fairly long stiff straight hairs). The presence and position of hairs in Gladiolus is a useful identifying feature but their purpose beyond that is not clear. They may be there to discourage insects but other species of Gladiolus appear to do well enough without them. In Gladiolus hirsutus, there are usually around 3 to 6 bright pink flowers appearing in succession up the stem. The flowers have wide open mouths, with darker guide lines on the lower lip, which indicate they are adapted for bee pollination.

Gladiolus hirsutus is a common species in the south-western Cape, including the Cape Peninsula. It occurs as far east as Mossel Bay and northwards to the Koue Bokkeveld. Our plants started flowering at the beginning of August but they can flower as early as June and in the east of their range, even in the autumn. They are widespread on the lower slopes of Phillipskop, especially around the self-catering cottages. A common name has been given to it of “small pink Afrikaner” or the more apt “hairy Afrikaner”, though that does conjure up a rather different mental image.

Close-up of Gladiolus hirsutus (Iridaceae) flower

The open flowers with nectar guides on the lower lip are ideally suited for pollination by bees

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