Crocus: stars of the autumn garden

Crocus vallicola.
KERRY CARMAN

Crocus vallicola.

Autumn has always been my favourite season, except for certain moments in spring and early summer. The crisp mornings, clear starry nights, seasonal colour change and still overcast days with a hint of bonfire smoke in the air all combine to lift the spirits. Senses are sharpened too by the knowledge that the year is coming to a close and the garden preparing to complete its cycle. 

Americans have always called this time "fall", a word that has a sad sound in itself as we watch the leaves fall from the trees… 

But wait! What are these bright little noses thrusting up through the cooling soil? It is the season's sweetest refreshments, the little bulbs and corms of autumn denying all this sadness. They bring a taste of early spring, these elfin cyclamen, golden sternbergias, pink-stemmed white snowflakes, colchicums and the true autumn crocuses, as pristine and bright as any crocus of spring.

From left: Crocus banaticus 'Albus', Sternbergia lutea.
KERRY CARMAN

From left: Crocus banaticus 'Albus', Sternbergia lutea.

Many gardeners refer to colchicums or meadow saffrons as crocuses because of their similar shape, but in reality crocuses and colchicums belong to different family groups. 

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The mostly larger colchicums belong to the lily family along with their cousins the gilded sternbergias. As such they have six stamens at the heart of the flower whereas true crocuses belong to the iris clan and have only three. The corms and leaves are also hugely different. 

One of my favourite autumn crocuses, Crocus banaticus, somewhat resembles an iris. It even used to be listed as Crocus iridiflorus, the iris-flowered crocus. This treasure has three short inner petals that remain erect in the manner of iris standards, and three larger outer petals that expand to lie flat, very much resembling a tiny iris. There is also a rare exquisite white form. This gem needs a cool, moist shaded spot to thrive.

There are autumn-flowering crocuses suitable for every garden situation, from full sun to shade, from rocky screes and sandy situations to moist retentive loams. 

A few of my other favourites include unfussy Colchicum serotinus subsp. salzmannii, which I call Old Faithful as its silken lilac blooms scented by a bright orange style appear before the end of March and continue for two months, spreading into bigger and better patches every year. Its lilac pools of colour spreading under the trees have enhanced every autumn in the three gardens of my lifetime.

From left: Crocus nudiflorus, Crocus serotinus subsp. salzmannii.
KERRY CARMAN

From left: Crocus nudiflorus, Crocus serotinus subsp. salzmannii.

Crocus speciosus and its hybrids such as 'Oxonian' and Crocus speciosus x pulchellus are the largest and often earliest to bloom in a range of shimmering purples, some with contrasting stripes. These naturalise well in grass or open borders that are not too dry as they come from open moist meadows in the wild. They seed freely so can build up substantial colonies. 

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Crocus ochroleucus and Crocus vallicola are also good increasers. They prefer full sun but don't like to be too dry while dormant in summer. 

Some of these autumn crocuses have a strong sweet scent, a distinguishing factor with Crocus longiflorus, a free-flowering species that spreads quickly by producing stolons from the corm base.

From left: Crocus banaticus, Crocus longiflorus.
KERRY CARMAN

From left: Crocus banaticus, Crocus longiflorus.

A very attractive species is Crocus nudiflorus with its large, rich purple blooms that appear before the leaves as the name indicates. It is easy to grow if left alone. 

Crocus niveus 'Lilacina' and Crocus caspius are two other reliable favourites. Many of mine were obtained from the late Charlie Challenger's Little River nursery. Most of his treasures have found their way into the hands of careful plant collectors so it is worth keeping an eye on mail order sources and NZ Alpine Garden Society's seed lists.

Crocuses can be in bloom for nine months of the year if you choose the right species. Many of these beauties repeat flower from April through to June bringing a welcome freshness and the scent of early spring to the season and pleasure enough to banish any melancholy mood. 

If you want to learn more about these plants, I would recommend these books: The Crocus by Brian Mathew (Timber Press); Crocuses: A Complete Guide to the Genus by Janis Ruksans (Timber Press); and The Smaller Bulbs by Brian Mathew (Batsford).

 - NZ Gardener

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