A touch of spring in autumn: Colchicums

A three year old clump from one bulb

I am a bit late posting this – other posts and a heap load of problems have caused a small lapse in posts. But colchicums are in flower in the garden and maybe your garden centre still has some bulbs for sale, though they will certainly be sending up shoots by now.

Colchicums are often sold as that wondrous bulb that will flower on the windowsill without planting and that is how I first encountered it, as a youngster. My first experience was with the ‘ordinary’ C. autumnale, but this is not as common now as hybrids such as this, ‘The Giant’. Although the bulbs ‘will’ produce flowers without planting, on the windowsill they are rather pale in colour and not as gorgeous as they will be outside.

So here is a plant that produces fab flowers from bare ground in autumn. What is there not to love? Well of course there is a price to pay and if you want a repeat performance the plant has to recover and that means making leaves to feed the bulb. These leaves will appear in spring and it is then that you will understand why they should not be called autumn crocus! For a start they are not autumn crocus – there are true autumn crocus and the many species are lovely and delicate and have typical grassy, crocus leaves. Colchicums are not related and they have great tufts of broad, glossy leaves about 40cm high (according to species of course). These are bold and not unattractive but these are plants that come from areas that are mild and wet in winter and spring, ideal for growth, and dry in summer, when the plant disappears underground. Which poses a problem – the leaves turn yellow and brown in May, just when everything else is looking nice, and they are an eyesore.

An old name for colchicums is son-before-the-father because in spring the leaves appear with a fat seed pod in the centre, as though the seeds come before the flowers that appear in autumn.

It is tempting to put colchicums among low, dainty plants; imagine how nice they will look popping up through some dwarf dianthus or brightening a dull aubrieta in autumn. But the collapsing colchicum foliage will swamp and kill off the plants it lands on so that won’t work.

Plant the large bulbs with the tops about 8cm deep in good, fertile soil. Slugs will attack the flowers but the plants are poisonous so they tend not to be widely grazed. That they are tough was demonstrated to me when I took over at Myddelton House and cleared beds that had been overgrown with weeds and shrubs for decades. Myriad colchicums sprung up, mostly white and purple forms of Colchicum speciosum, possibly the best of all. The white ‘Album’ is a plant of exceptional beauty and worth seeking out and planting at almost any cost!

Colchicum flowers last several days if picked, even if not in water.

Fortunately colchicums will put up with some shade so the possibilities for planting are broad. Just be aware that the leaves are bigger than the flowers.

 

One bulb, newly planted

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2 Comments on “A touch of spring in autumn: Colchicums”

  1. derrickjknight
    October 1, 2019 at 10:38 am #

    Ours are proliferating well, but have been flattened by the recent winds

  2. tonytomeo
    October 7, 2019 at 10:02 pm #

    These are now becoming more available than they had been, and can be purchased in nurseries. They are still uncommon, but attainable for those who want them.

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