30: Autumn 2012

Author: Jane Norris

The Autumn Crocus

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The Autumn Crocus
Jane Norris

There is an old legend telling about a mystical land called Colchis. It was where famous poisoners lived. In a secret garden full of poisonous plants and herbs grew a magic plant, the favourite flower of the most beautiful poisoner Medea. A thousand years later, Carl Linnaeus named that plant after this wonderful place. Actually this plant is widespread on the meadows and grasslands in Europe and the Middle East.

The autumn crocus looks like an ordinary crocus, only it has pink-violet blossoms and up to 30 cm long leaves. It provoked interest even in ancient times not only because it blooms in the autumn and its fruits appear in the spring, in contrast to the other flowers. All parts of the plant are deadly poisonous. The bulb of the plant contains the alkaloid colchicin, which is still used in the treatment of gout.

Colchicum autumnale, the meadow saffron, grows naturally in the temperate climates of Europe.

Colchicum blooms appear in the autumn, but their foliage does not emerge until spring. It is this lack of leaf that accounts for one of their common names, naked ladies. The more widely used common name, autumn crocus, has led to some confusion. Although colchicums look like crocuses, they are actually members of the lily family and not the iris, which the crocus belongs to; colchicums have six stamens, the crocus has three.

Colchicums are perhaps best known for their ability to grow in shade. One of the best varieties for brightening the dark ground under trees is C. speciosum ‘Album’. Although white colchicums are extremely handsome, by far the greatest choice of varieties is available in shades of pink.
Plant corms in groups of three, about 10 cm to 15 cm (4 in to 6 in) deep in a well-drained soil that is liberally enriched with compost.

The corms may flower the following spring instead of the same autumn, but as soon as they feel the damp soil around their base they will produce a throng of white roots and large, lush green leaves.

These let you know that the corms are still alive and well. Never be tempted to cut leaves off in late spring. The corms rely on this time to make enough energy to flower in the autumn.

Once established, each corm will then increase yearly, a bit like a daffodil bulb. When clumps begin to look a bit too congested the plants can be divided. This is best done at flowering time, or just afterwards if you don’t want to risk damaging the blooms.

First published in the Dorset Group Newsletter, 2011-2012
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 30.
© Copyright for this article: Jane Norris

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2012. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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