Although they've been in the shops for a couple of weeks now, I forever associate gladioli with the month of August. Specifically the August after my third year of primary school, when I had to go into hospital for a pre-booked operation after a burst appendix earlier that year. I was ten, but allocated a bed in the Victorian Stockport Infirmary on a long, old-fashioned women's ward with many geriatric patients and one loo. Fortunately, I was in a drug-induced fug most of the time which might be why I have incredibly heightened memories of reading Reach for the Sky, the Molesworth books (with much painful laughter) and The Wool-Pack. Despite the memorable books, though, I couldn't wait to be discharged.
After a week or so there, I cried when I was then told I was to have a further week in a convalescent home (so very different to the modern in-and-out hospital experience). I imagined all sorts of grimness, but was taken to a lovely place where the nice room I shared with just one woman looked out onto a big, sunny, green garden. It seemed like heaven after the hospital, though goodness knows what my co-patient whose main aim was to get outside for a cigarette thought of sharing with a ten year old whose main aim was to be well enough to jump on the bed.
Vase with Gladioli (1886) Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum
It felt very grown-up and I liked this. But the pinnacle of grownupness came when an elderly uncle visited with an enormous sheaf of gladioli from his garden - just for me. These were the first flowers anyone had bought me and I adored having them next to my bed so that I could look at them during breaks from Molesworth and Fotherington-Thomas.
Gladioli (1878) Claude Monet
Of course, it was kind and thoughtful gesture which touched me the most - fancy thinking I merited flowers - but it was in these few days that I came to love gladioli with a passion which has never abated.
Gladioli (1931) James Arundel, Hepworth Gallery
I like the way they are stiff and tightly closed to begin with, the way they unfurl with frills and ruffs and points, the way that you often don't know what colour a closed flower will be until it opens and, of course, the wonderful range of hot, deep, bright, pale, cool colours they reveal.
Gladioli (1930) Adrian Paul Allinson, Bradford Art Gallery
In some ways they are the summer version of spring daffodils. They are local, fresh, British flowers available in supermarkets, it's best to buy them tightly closed, and they are ridiculously cheap given the effects they achieve, and they fill a room with colour and cheerfulness.
last week's gladioli
Painters have liked them for structure, colour, and a touch of the exotic. The Impressionists were keen, Van Gogh was a big fan, and there seems to have been another fashion moment for gladioli in the 1930s when they fitted in well with an angular Modernist floral style.
Gladioli (c1933) Florence Engelbach, Laing Art Gallery
When they are in season, I buy them whenever I see them, aiming to get through the full colour range, from salmon-pink to deep magenta, from royal purple to vermilion by the end of August. And every time I come home with a sheaf, I think of my uncle and a happy, recuperating, ten year old me.