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Colchicum species

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Common name: Autumn crocus; meadow saffron
Plant type: Fall-flowering bulb
Flower color: Lavender;, rose, white, or checkered
Bloom period: Late August-November
Fragrance: Sweet (some species)
Height: 3-8"
Hardiness: Zones 3-9
Light needs: Full to part sun
Moisture needs: Very drought tolerant; needs good drainage
Seasonal character: Looks like a crocus blooming in fall; leaves appear after bloom.

Colchicums are magical plants. The only flowering bulb to bloom while dormant, colchicum sends up waterlily-like blossoms of lavender to rosy lilac or white in the early fall. The delicate flowers have all the seasonally incongruous beauty of the autumn-blooming cherry, (Prunus subhirtella var. autumnalis) and common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), two other plants which flower delightfully on the wrong side of winter.

In spite of its common names (autumn crocus and meadow saffron), colchicums are neither crocus nor saffron. While there are fall-blooming crocuses, colchicum is its own genus populated by at least 15 species, hybrids, and varieties. And don't mistakenly harvest its golden stamens for saffron to use as a spice in your kitchen. Colchicum plants are toxic. (Saffron, on the other hand, is an autumn-blooming true crocus, Crocus sativus.)

The blossoms of colchicums range from 3" for the checkered species C. agrippinum to a willowy 8"
for the commonly available hybrid 'Lilac Wonder.' They are more or less goblet-shaped and may be single or very double, in the varieties 'Lilac Wonder' and C. autumnale var. plenum or var. alboplenum. Even the varieties described as rosy in color are decidedly toward the lilac end of the spectrum. The exceptions are the above-mentioned double-flowered botanical variety alboplenum, and the single C. autumnale var. album, which have flowers of sparkling white. The most appealing thing about colchicum blossoms--beyond the magical way they pop up in autumn--is their translucent petals, which make the flowers look like goblets of light.

Plant colchicums in late summer or early fall with the bases of the bulbs about 5" below the soil surface. Make sure they have good drainage by not choosing a low spot and by mixing plenty of grit and compost into the soil before planting. Colchicums like drought; try to avoid planting them in a spot that receives a lot of summer irrigation. If you live in Zone 4 or colder, cover them with a protective layer of airy mulch such as evergreen branches over the winter.

Other desirable varieties include 'Waterlily, with double mauve flowers; C. speciosum, with 4" fragrant, raspberry-lilac blooms, and huge and late-blooming C. boornmuelleri, also sweetly fragrant and hardy only to Zone 5.

Like all bulbs, colchicums look best when planted with a lavish hand in drifts. They are wonderful tucked among mat-forming spring-blooming perennials such as aubrieta and iberis. An especially pretty echo of colors can be had by overplanting them with a carpet of the common summer annual alyssum, whose lace of tiny rosy-lavender and white flowers is the perfect foil to the bolder form of the colchicum blossoms. Try planting them in drifts in the high shade under large trees, an area that is normally quite dry throughout the summer and thus suits them ideally. But be careful not to mow off their foliage after they bloom, because as with all flowering bulbs, the ripening of the foliage is essential to nourish the formation of next year's flowers.

Ants like to eat the seeds of colchicums, and so will helpfully spread them about in the process of hauling their harvest back to their nests. And colchicums are a boon to critter-plagued gardeners. Squirrels, deer, and rabbits seem to know they're toxic, and leave them all to you to enjoy.

Because colchicums have the unusual characteristic of flowering while dormant, they can be "forced" into bloom by just laying the bare unplanted bulb on a sunny windowsill. In barely two weeks you'll have willowy flowers gracefully tilting their faces toward the light. The poignant contrast of the silkily sumptuous lavender petals with the earthy brown of the dry bulbs is much appreciated by French florists. You can conjure the same effect by simply laying a handful of bulbs in a pretty box, tray, shallow bowl, or basket, setting it in the window, and forgetting it for a couple of weeks.



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Cimicifuga simplex 'The Pearl'

Corylopsis glabra

Erysimum cheirii, E. allionii and hybrids

Euonymus europaeus

Hamamelis virginiana

Hamamelis x intermedia

Jasminum nudiflorum

Lonicera fragrantissima

Nepeta sibirica 'Souvenir d'Andr Chaudon'

Parrotia persica

Pulsatilla vulgaris (formerly Anemone pulsatilla)

Rosa x multiflora 'Ghislaine de Felighonde'

Sarcococca ruscifolia

Agastache rupestris

Alchemilla mollis

Anchusa azurea

Buddleia alternifolia

Calamintha grandiflora

Helianthella quinquenervis

Helleborus niger

Hibiscus syriacus 'Bluebird'

Lespedeza thunbergii

Rosa x 'Gloire de Dijon'

Solidago rugosa

Tilia x europaea
Plants In Profile
Having a collector's mentality in my plant passion, I've had to learn how to make the best garden choices for myself and others. Here are my very favorite plants--some old, some new--but all plants that earn their place in any garden. Included are the latest and greatest plant introductions from France and the rest of Europe eminently suitable for New World gardens. Barbara Wilde
   
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