Column: The autumn crocus, a beautiful and dangerous flower

Peeking out of many flower beds right now is the charming bright pink autumn crocus or meadow saffron.  As the rest of our flower beds start to get ready for their long winter nap, these little gems are adding their unique colour to our gardens.

Autumn crocus is a member of the lily family (Liliaceae), not to be confused with its look alike, the spring-flowering crocus, which is a member of the iris family (Iridaceae).  (I always learn something new writing these articles!)  The autumn crocus hails from Europe, Asia and North Africa and is one of 70 species in the genus colchicum. The colchicum has an unusual life cycle in that the lovely pink flowers appear in the fall.

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A note of caution about the autumn crocus plants is that they are toxic.  Ingesting this plant results in symptoms similar to arsenic poisoning.

The autumn crocus has a long history as a poison.  Greek slaves were known to eat the plant to make them sick and even to commit suicide.  Besides its use as a poison, autumn crocus bulbs have long been used for medicinal purposes as well. Today the toxin alkaloid, colchicines, is used for the treatment of acute gout, something we will not try at home ourselves.

We gardeners prefer to use the autumn crocus for its delightful blooms.  Now is the time to plant the autumn crocus which will initially spring from the earth without any foliage.  They then fade within two to three weeks and lie dormant until the next spring where three to eight, one-foot leaves appear and remain until early summer.  Many years ago, before I knew about these wonderful plants, I would rip out the leaves in the spring because there wasn’t a flower to be seen.  Of course, they came back every spring because I did not remove the corm.

The flowers of the autumn crocus are very delicate—watch where you are walking in your garden—so should be protected.  Situate them under low growing plants, or even in your lawn!  If you plant in your lawn, allow the foliage in the spring to die down before mowing. Autumn crocus does well in full sun to partial shade.

Autumn crocus is a great addition to your fall garden along with the usual choices of chrysanthemums and asters.

Check with your local nursery for the different varieties available in our area.  I will be adding more of these little wisps of colour to my garden in the next few days. 

Lynda Pasacreta is current president of the Richmond Garden Club.  For more information, visit richmondgardenclub.ca.

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