Most gardeners are familiar with autumn crocuses but these are often not crocus at all but colchicums, which are a very different plant despite the superficial similarity of the flowers. But while colchicums (which usually bloom a little earlier than the true autumn crocus) have huge, broad leaves in spring, true autumn crocus have, well, crocus leaves in spring, months after the flowers have faded.
Unfortunately the most commonly sold autumn crocus is Crocus sativus, the plant that gives us the spice saffron. This is not the easiest to grow and is not a terribly satisfactory garden plant because it does not always bloom well. Crocus kotschyanus is often seen for sale but for some reason (it happens a lot with bulbs) no one seems to have taken a photo of it and the coloured packs always (in my experience) have a photo of a clump of colchicim flowers on them which is helpful to no one at the best and downright misleading or worse. This crocus can be prolific and is not the best of the bunch, a title I would bestow on the elegant and colourful C. speciosus.
Its name means ‘showy’ and it is very apt. The flowers emerge from the soil in October and the large, wine-glass shaped flowers are held on impossibly thin 15cm ‘stalks’ (of course these are not stalks but flower tubes and the ovary is under the soil). Like many people, I have planted these in grass where they can look beautiful when the lavender flowers pop up among bright fallen leaves. But a better idea would be to plant them through a low-growing shrub or ground cover in sun. Any of the thymes would be ideal, or possibly a helianthemum or a low sedum, provided you keep the slugs under control. The low plant would help prevent wind from toppling those slender blooms.
If the weather is kind the flowers open to reveal their bright, feathery stigmas, a vivid contrast to the pastel colours of the petals.
This species is native to Turkey, east to Iran and there have been many collections so there are various cvs available. My corms were supposed to be ‘Conquerer’ but I think you would be unlikely to get what you ask for unless you go to a really good specialist. And whatever you get, as long as it is the right species, you will be charmed by them. A sunny spot is best, in a soil that is never waterlogged. With luck and a bit of care (obviously let the leaves grow in spring) this is a plant that should increase into colonies and get better every year.
If you have an ever-expanding colony you can admire them from afar but if you only have a few you will want to get down and appreciate their individual beauty, in which case you will also enjoy their hiney fragrance.