Autumn Crocuses: Colchicums Are Just Alright, Right?

There are many plants I know I like. If you come here often, chances are, you could name a few of them too. Roses. Peonies. Blue poppies. Hellebores… I could go on. They don’t even need to have showy flowers – I love demure shade plants as much as anything. But colchicums? I’ve never given colchicums much thought. Not even the double forms I’ve seen, those waterlilies of the earth. As flowers go, I’d have said they were just alright.

Colchicums are flowers out of season: living mixed metaphors. Their appearance heralds Autumn, with its rich ripeness and decay, but by putting out fresh, soft growth. Their ankle-high colours seem to cry out ‘Spring!’ in error, oblivious that all the leaves on the trees way above are considering whether it would still be premature for them to twist, redden and fall in their yearly ritual. 

Any botanist worth their stuff will tell you that autumn crocuses are not really crocuses. Well, there are autumn-flowering crocuses but they’re not these. Confused? If you want to be sure, count their golden stamens. Six = colchicum, three = crocus. Simples! The folk name, as so often, works for me.

Colchicums are the kind of plants you really have to be fond of to see excitement in comparing their different forms. Their colours don’t have much wow factor for me, whereas spring flowering crocuses are like little jewels. I’ll concede they do have larger blooms than their common or garden counterparts. Still, they’re not exactly earth shattering, are they – not even when their pale stems are actually shattering the earth at our feet? Not even when the bare stems part into not leaves, but pink flowers, each with a cluster of golden stamens accentuated by a faint, star-like pattern at their centre. (I think these are Colchicum parnassicum, although they were not labelled).

Some of our leading gardeners seem to have a passion for them. We saw them at Blooms of Bressingham, East Ruston Vicarage, Hyde Hall and Beth Chatto’s garden. East Ruston had a national collection of them, flowering their hearts out almost incidentally in plastic pots under decorative trees. If the collection at Hyde Hall is not also a national one, it deserves to be.

I just about came to terms during our brief trip with so regularly thinking ‘Colchicums!’ and dashing off to admire a small patch of pink thingies when I might have expected my attention to be elsewhere. It seems even more unaccountable that, back at home, reminiscing about our recent trip to these famous gardens of East England that I’ve heard about, wondered over, but never seen till now, it’s the unearthly colchicums I remember.

I think it’s because even when these bare flowering tubes borrow neighbouring foliage to modestly conceal their ‘nakedness’, they still seem a bit unlikely. And bold – bold to think they can counteract the season. A bold, unlikely flower deserves a few interestingness points, wouldn’t you say?

I hope they’re not going to become a new passion, like sourdough bread or succulents. Those bulbs are quite expensive and I’ve nowhere to put them.

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