I have a fondness for the flowers in the lily family. I especially like some of the unusual ones that are easy to grow in the landscape. Colchicums have virtually no pests and reliably bloom and spread with no care.
The genus is native to Europe, Africa and Asia. Coming from such a wide area, the plants have a wide variety of common names including autumn crocus, meadow saffron and naked lady. Common names like autumn crocus can be misleading, as colchicums are in the lily family and the Crocus genus is in the iris family. Many people have never heard that there are several species of crocus and colchicum that bloom in the fall. The saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) that produces the saffron spice is a fall-blooming crocus species.
Colchicums not only do not produce saffron; many are poisonous. All parts of the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) are poisonous. I regularly handle the bulbs and leaves of the plants in my garden and have never had a problem, but some authors state that gloves should be worn when handling colchicum bulbs. The toxic chemical colchicine is contained in some species. It has been used as a Food and Drug Administration-approved treatment for gout and may be appropriate for some cancer treatments. Colchicine is also used to treat certain watermelon seedlings in the process to eventually produce seedless watermelons.
Colchicum corms are harvested in July and August by the growers and sold immediately. They will bloom in September or October, even if they are not planted. If you order early, you can leave them on a countertop or plant them to see the flowers. If you order late, they will have already bloomed, and all you can do is plant them and wait until next year.
Most colchicums prefer well-drained soil that doesn't dry out in the summer. Full sun in the spring before trees leaf out and part shade after is fine. The leaves will begin dying back in June, around the time that peonies are being deadheaded. Just like other bulbs, the leaves should be left until they fully turn yellow so that the bulb can store the most energy. Some varieties can be grown as far north as U.S. Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zone 4 and some as far south as Zone 9, so just about every garden can have colchicums.
The leaves come out in the spring with spring-flowering bulbs and look a bit like a hosta when coming up. It helps to plant them where summer foliage of other perennials can hide the leaves as they begin to die, but the flowers are most visible when they are planted near the front of a flowerbed. There are a couple of weeks in June or July when the foliage is a bit unsightly. Mine begin blooming in mid-September, and a few flowers are still left in mid-October.
All colchicum flowers "relax" after a few days and begin lying on the ground. It helps to plant them in a ground-cover bed of vinca or euonymus that will help prop them up for an extra day or two. A large colchicum corm will send up several flower stalks. Each one may have more than six flowers that are several inches across. The flowers are very attractive to pollinators. Flower colors include pinks, purples and white.
Because of their very short shelf life between harvest and bloom, they are rarely found in garden centers. Several bulb catalog companies have good supplies, but it is best to order them early, which means by midsummer. They range in price from $5 to $15. Order several with friends to get a discount. If you order late in the season, you may find sale prices, but a limited selection. My favorite source is Brent and Becky's website.
Email questions to Jeff Rugg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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