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Snow Crocus

Plant of the Week

Snow Crocus
Latin: Crocus chrysanthus

Picture of multiple crocus blooms
Though the blooms of the species crocus are smaller than the modern hybrids, they have much more grace in the garden.

Early spring bloomers are a special treat in the garden. They’re bonus plants magically appearing in unexpected and forgotten places about the garden as we transition from the coldest days of winter to the first hopeful days of spring.

Of all these, Crocus chrysanthus - often called the snow crocus, is one of the smallest but still a favorite.

About 80 species of crocus are known to botanists with a natural range of distribution from northern Africa to central Asia. Mountainous parts of Europe, especially about the Mediterranean region, are home for many species. Crocus chrysanthus makes its home in the Balkan Mountains of southern Europe, an area we became acquainted with a decade ago when civil war raged through the region.

The architecture of this crocus is like the other spring species with up to four blooms produced from each of the small corms. Blooms appear in late winter with flowers produced for about four weeks. The funnel shaped blossoms are an inch or so across and 4 inches tall with a contrasting orange pistol.

Flowers range in color from bright yellow to white and all shades between. Some bicolored selections are also available. One of my favorite is ‘Cream Beauty’ with rich, creamy blossoms.

Because it’s a wild species they often reseed to increase the size of the colony. Crocus, because they bloom before the snow is gone in late winter, have an interesting way of protecting their seed crop. Seeds mature below ground. The blossom is a long narrow tube with the ovary positioned at the base and about three inches below ground. As the seeds ripen with the arrival of warmer spring weather, the peduncle elongates and pushes the seed capsule to the surface.

Crocus don’t garner a lot of enthusiasm amongst many gardeners because they’re small and, for the most part, similar in appearance. But there are exceptions. One such person was a genteel southern gardener named Elizabeth Lawrence (1904-1985). She tells of her experiences growing all of the then available crocus species during the middle years of the 20th century in her charming book, The Little Bulbs.

Lawrence was one of the best garden writers during the middle years of the century because plants were her passion and she was able to express it in her writing. Even as WWII raged through Europe and the normal supply of species crocus was cut off, she managed to acquire most of the then-available species from her extensive network of correspondents. Emily Herring Wilson tells of her life in No One Gardens Alone - a biography of Elizabeth Lawrence.

Growing small plants like crocus present a special problem for gardeners because they are easily overtaken by larger, more aggressive neighbors and soon lost. I like to plant crocus in small, densely packed colonies with as many as a dozen corms crowded into a 6-inch wide hole. Whenever possible, I like to plant these beneath the spreading skirt of creepers like dwarf phlox or dianthus. Such double cropping keeps me from inadvertently disturbing the corms during their dormant season.

Crocuses thrive in a wide range of soils but are best in a reasonably fertile, well drained site. They are best in full sun but will persist in medium shade. Plantings usually make a grand show the first year, but subsequent displays are less dramatic until they settle into the site. If well sited, they are long term survivors. I have been watching some crocus plantings bloom for over 30 years where they survive with no outside intervention.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - February 17, 2006

 

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.