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Autumn Crocus

Plant of the Week

Autumn Crocus
Latin: Colchicum autumnale

Picture of Autumn Crocus with pale pink flowers.

Even in difficult drought years like this one, our gardens can amaze and amuse us. We see tough little plants do their thing under some of the most adverse conditions imaginable. One of these durable little plants is the autumn crocus, which recently began blooming -- a reminder that droughts always pass and better days lie ahead.

The soft pink flowers grow about 8 inches tall with blooms 3 inches across. As the plants become established, each corm may produce three to eight stems, each bearing a single flower. The corms are 3 inches across and poisonous.

The plant blooms without foliage. It just appears, as if by magic, as the hottest days of summer begin to pass away. The foliage is broad and almost hosta-like in appearance. It emerges in late winter and withers away with the first hot days of May and June.

White-flowered and double-flowered selections are available, as are hybrids such as ‘Autumn Queen’ (violet), ‘Lilac Wonder’ (pinkish-lilac) and ‘Waterlily’ (double-form, lilac mauve).

The autumn crocus is not really a crocus. It’s a member of the lily family. It’s widely distributed from northern Africa through southern Europe.

Colchicums have long been favorites of gardeners, but before that they were favorites of the early doctors who used them for various medical treatments. The bulbs produce a toxic alkaloid called colchicine that’s still used today to treat gout and rheumatism.

But colchicine also has a part to play in creating new and improved garden plants.

In 1931, a Bulgarian scientist experimenting with eggplant in his greenhouse used a nicotine spray to control a bug problem he was having. Upon examining the seedlings of those eggplants, he discovered that many seedlings had undergone chromosome doubling -- the creation of tetraploids. This started other scientists looking at related compounds. In the mid-1930s, the husband and wife team of Nebel and Nebel from Geneva, N.Y., discovered that colchicine was the most effective at causing this doubling phenomena.

When plants have extra chromosomes, they usually have larger characters: bigger flowers, bigger fruits and larger, thicker leaves. The strawberry, for example, has eight sets of chromosomes that arose naturally from chance doubling and crossing.

With the discovery of colchicine, David Burpee’s plant breeders, caught up in the "better living through chemistry" mania that swept post WW II America, began using the drug to double the chromosome numbers of most of their major crops. Their tetraploid snapdragon appeared in 1946 and was soon followed by the enormous cactus-flowered zinnias and tetraploid marigolds. This bigger-is-better philosophy has been carried to extreme in some plants. The delicate beauty of the flower is lost to a Frankensteinian rendition of its former self. In the garden, one would hardly suspect the role that the lovely autumn crocus played in the sex life of marigolds and zinnias.

Colchicum is best planted in sunny or partly shaded sites in well drained soils. The corms are planted with the nose of the corm 2-3 inches deep in drifts of a dozen or more. Because the foliage is large, plants should be given at least 8 inches on center spacing. Once planted, the plants should remain undisturbed as long as they are thriving.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - September 15, 2000

 

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.