Bartlett on Gardening: Consider Fall-Blooming Crocus

​​I confess that I’ll try almost any plant once. Some years ago I decided to spice up a long perennial border with a few Crocus specious. These little jewels provide the most delightful zest when the gardener least expects it. They bloom in shades of blue and mauve that glow in the light of short autumn days. The foliage appears in late winter, disappearing in mid-spring, so that one forgets about them until they suddenly reappear in late September or early October.

Like their spring-blooming cousins, these crocus are members of the iris family. The most famous member of the clan is C. sativus, the saffron crocus. Saffron crocus bear long, scarlet stigma (the long red tips of the female pistils), three per blossom, which can be plucked and dried to make the highly- prized spice saffron. At about $8.50 per gram ($240 per ounce), saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. You’ll need to pluck about 180 stigma to get a gram.

Colchicum autumnal is commonly called an autumn-blooming crocus; however, it is actually a member of the lily family. It does bloom at ground level at the same time as the crocus. The larger, showier flowers are brilliant purplish pinks or white. Foliage appears in spring, disappearing in summer. The corms can be forced indoors without soil or water. Beware, colchicum are extremely toxic.

Crocus bulbs ready to force

Generally the corms of both crocus and colchicum are more available from mail-order sources than garden centers. Plant them in late summer or early fall. Both like well-drained soil and tolerate a sunny site if kept watered. They work well among low-growing ground covers or in the front of the border. The glow of these autumn blooming beauties is a welcome contrast to the ubiquitous mums.

Native Californian Ann Bartlett never lets a lack of experience with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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