An Autumn Surprise

Karen Z. —  October 1, 2012 — Leave a comment
colchicum

Crocus in autumn? No, it’s colchicum, a fall-flowering corm that holds quite a few surprises.

Every garden should hold a few surprises.

In fall, the Landscape Gardens deliver a good one: bright lavender patches of Colchicum, commonly known as autumn crocus or, less commonly, meadow saffron. Popping up suddenly through the groundcover, the flowers can stop visitors—and bloggers—in their tracks. With the current streak of balmy weather, the colchicum seem to be lasting even longer this year, begging a deeper look into the surprises that this bulb (actually a corm) holds up its leaves.

Surprise #1: It’s not a crocus.

Short, goblet-shaped flowers and spring-like color cause the confusion between colchicum and crocus, but there’s an easy way to tell them apart: count the long stamens in the center of the flower. Six stamens? It’s a colchicum. Only three? It’s a crocus. Colchicum’s flowers are much larger, too, and its leaves are long and strappy, rather than short and grassy.

Surprise #2: Spring leaves, fall flowers.

Expectations run high in spring, as colchicum’s wide leaves emerge, flowerless, to do their work, pulling sunlight’s energy into the corm underground. Then the leaves retreat for the summer. Time passes…and then the surprise comes, as clumps of flowers, leafless, emerge from the same spot in fall, a pleasing reminder that gardening is powered by patience.

Surprise #3: It’s not the source of saffron.

Although colchicum’s common name is “meadow saffron,” it doesn’t produce the flavorful red stamens of kitchen/culinary fame—that distinction belongs to Crocus sativus, a true crocus that also blooms in fall (along with its leaves—you can see why it gets so confusing). Unlike that crocus, colchicum has less showy stamens that cannot be eaten because…

Surprise #4: It’s poisonous.

The whole plant is: flowers, leaves, stamens, everything. Site it accordingly in your yard.

This weekend, three beautiful colchicum varieties will be sold at the Fall Bulb Festival—‘Lilac Wonder,’ which you can see in the Home Landscape Garden now; ‘Waterlily,’ a well-named, ruffled variety; and ‘Album,’ the classic white colchicum. Like most bulbs, colchicum corms are planted in late fall so they can settle in before next year’s bloom.

In the meantime, we wonder: what surprises does your garden hold?

Karen Z.

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Karen Zaworski is a writer who likes to use as few words as possible, a photographer who still works with black-and-white film and a darkroom, and a gardener who actually likes to weed.

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