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Colchicum: the autumn crocus

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Spring flowers for fall
The first rains of September heralded the unofficial end of summer, the first chanterelles of the fall mushroom-hunting season, and the emergence of the colchicums.  While I’ll miss summer, I’m not sure which of the last two I enjoy more.

Colchicums are also called autumn crocus, although they’re not a crocus at all.  Gardeners often criticize them for their messy spring foliage, broad green sheaves that must be left untouched until they brown.  I say the taste of spring in fall offered by colchicums is well worth the trouble later.

The flowers do look like giant crocus, although the two are actually members of different families (colchicums are Llliaceae, crocus are Iridacea). The most obvious difference is that colchicums have six stamens, while crocus have only three.  “Naked Boys” is a common name for colchicums, since the flowers appear before the foliage.  As this leaves them “naked” I can see where the first half of the name comes from — but not the boys!

Colchicums begin flowering in September and can last through October, sending up successive flowers over a period of weeks.  Planting different varieties extends the season.  You’ll see colchicums in the bulb displays at nurseries, sometimes flowering while still in the box.  It’s true you can place them in water on the windowsill and watch them bloom, but this so depletes their strength that you may as well toss the bulb when it’s done. I’d rather plant them, then watch them multiply as the years go by.  My neighbor has colchicums planted by the original owner of her house, probably back in the 1940s or earlier.  Grown in full sun, they are a sea of lavender by mid-September.

Two of the most common colchicum varieties are the double lilac ‘Waterlily’ and the single mauve ‘The Giant’.  The latter stands about four inches tall, with the flower itself at least an inch long.  The petals are white at the center with purple veining that strengthens to a completely lilac edge.  One of my favorites is C. Deregrinum, with tessellated petals that remind me a little of the checkerboard patterning on the snake’s-head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris).  C. Deregrinum is smaller and more delicate than ‘The Giant’, standing a little over three inches tall total, with narrower petals.

There are also white varieties, the single C. autumnale ‘Album’ and the double C. autumnale alboplenum.  At roughly five dollars per bulb, the double white may put you off — but invest in one, and watch it grow.  They do multiply, flower a bit later than ‘The Giant’, and they don’t require much coddling.  The double white is a mass of narrow white petals, especially nice pushing through a low groundcover like Acaena ‘Copper Carpet’ or ‘Blue Haze’, or violas.  The added bonus of using groundcovers is that, when the inevitable rains come, no mud is splashed onto the pristine flowers.

Author Katherine Whiteside, in Classic Bulbs, recommends growing colchicums through nasturtiums to cover up their nudity.  But if you’re growing lilac colchicums, and your nasturtiums have hot orange flowers —ouch!  I’d cut those nasties off and toss them in the salad.

NWGN archive published October 1996

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