When Small IS Beautiful

Flowering bulbs fascinate us gardeners. Their exquisite crystalline beauty, they way they mark the passing of the seasons, and how they touch us deep inside with their powerful messages of rebirth and renewal, these are all part of the allure. We all have our favourites but for me no other bulb embodies these qualities better than the crocus.

Crocus sativus This attractive genus is native to the Old World, especially the Mediterranean region, and comprises over 80 species. All produce gem-like, goblet-shaped flowers in a range of shades from yellow, white, mauve and lilac-blue. In many cases their outer petals are conspicuously striped and stippled in darker hues and as an added bonus some species possess large and strongly coloured stigmas. While these are of additional ornamental value to the gardener they are also of considerable commercial importance because this is the source of saffron. In one particular species, Crocus sativus, the dried red stigma is used as a dye, as well as a condiment, and at one time, an important medicine.

The versatile little crocus is no one-season wonder. It is one of the first and the last of the dwarf bulbs to flower providing a succession of sunny displays from the earliest days of autumn through to the last flush of spring.

While they have been long valued in Northern Europe and North America, especially for the cheer that they bring to the bleakness of the late-winter garden, Australian gardeners have paid scant attention to them despite there being dozens of striking species that are much better adapted to our drier, water-scarce climate. The problem has been largely one of scale. Individually crocuses are small plants and gardeners have not known how to use them effectively in a garden setting. They must be planted extravagantly, or better still, plant species that will rapidly spread and colonize a sizeable chunk of the garden. They can also be easily grown in pots or raised beds where they are closer to the eye and one can more easily take in the detail. Or they can be brought into the house for the pleasure of enjoying their flowering fragrance.

Crocus niveus Crocus goulimyi Crocus goulimyi  ‘Mani White’

Some of the very best for Australian conditions are the Greek species like C. niveus, which bears huge, glistening white or lilac blooms in autumn and the similarly autumnal C. goulimyi, its lilac-blue flowers so perfectly poised on slender tubes that they resemble miniature blue wine goblets. Both C. cartwrightianus and C. sativus have beautifully feathered flowers in white or lilac, with massive scarlet styles and C. tournefortii is similar but the style is a froth of orange branches. For those who want to create large colonies quickly then C. kotschyanus with its large, lilac flowers, the bone-white C. ochroleucus or the plum-coloured C. nudiflorus are the best to choose.

Crocus cartwrightianus Crocus tournefortii Crocus kotschyanus

Crocus ochroleucus ‘Tel Aviv’ Crocus nudiflorus Crocus imperatii

For winter colour C. imperatii and C. laevigatus are hard to beat. Both beg for close-up inspection with their delicately striped and feathered outside petals although the flowers of the former are the more dramatic in the way they change from bud to fully open. They begin as a subdued buff colour on the closed outer petals but when fully open reveal the rich violet of their inner ones - a dramatic combination. The most important group of early spring flowers arise from the many and varied forms of C. vernus and C. tommasinianus. These are valuable garden plants because they are easy to grow, they come in a wide range of colours and they proliferate rapidly into substantial colonies.

Crocus laevigatus Crocus tommasinianus ‘Lilac Beauty’ C. tommasinianus ‘Whitewell Purple’ 

Crocus vernus ‘Vanguard’ Some of the best C. tommasinianus are "Lilac Beauty", a prolific selection with lavender-pink tinged flowers that are frosted silvery-white on their exterior, "Whitewell Purple", with its rich, deep purple flowers and “Roseus”, which bears flowers in the delightful combination of bright cyclamen pink and silvery-grey.

Crocus vernus is grossly misrepresented in the Australia by a handful bloated commercial clones and there are far better examples of this species to explore. “Ruby Giant” is a wonderful hybrid selection producing a large number of richly-coloured, reddish-purple flowers, just as prolific is “Vanguard”, with its dramatic bicoloured blooms of silvery-buff and violet-purple. “Lavender Stripe” is a new one that I have recently acquired from Janis Ruksans and I look forward every spring to its dramatically feathered pale lavender flowers with their central boss of white and lemon.
 

 

Crocus tommasinianus ‘Roseus’ Crocus vernus ‘Ruby Giant’ Crocus vernus ‘Lavender Stripe’

Call me obsessed ... well maybe ... but this is a lovely case of where small IS beautiful.

 

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Comments

Hi Jennifer, thanks for your comment. The beauty of crocus is you don't need a big garden to enjoy them. As I say in the blog you can make do with just a few pots and bring them into the house when the bulbs are in flower. They are the sort of dwarf bulb that literally begs for close up inspection because their flowers are so intrically constructed. In big gardens they tend to get "lost" unless you can manage sheets of them and then one often misses the finer details. Cheers, Marcus

We love crocus because they give us a lovely surprise when little else is flowering, especially in our alpine climate at Oberon NSW, at altitude of 1200 metres where many nights are colder than minus 5 degrees C.

Hi Margaret,

You raise an interesting point about crocus and temperature. They are a very adaptable tribe and most cope well with very cold winter temperatures even the ones that grow naturally at lower levels. This latter group, including niveus, goulimyi, hadriaticus, laevigatus, cartwrightianus, longiflorus, sativus, ochroleucus, tournefortii and longiflorus, are all autumn-flowering and DONT really need cold conditions to do well. I fact I have seen niveus, cartwrightianus and tournefortii growing almost on the beach in Greece!  

I am with you on the cheer they bring to a cold, bleak winter where nothing much else is stirring. They are great companions to the early scillas, like Scilla bifolia, Cyclamen coum and snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, elwesii and plicatus and look lovely planted in drifts and pools around hellebores.

Cheers, Marcus

Cheers, Marcus

Hi Marcus, I love these little flowers, they are so beautiful. I'm looking forward to receiving my new order soon and hopefully, we may get some rain by then, so I can plant them! My soil is rock hard at present.

Hi Beryl,

As the title of my piece infers not every flower has to be huge to be noticed. True, crocus flowers are small and fleeting but its that cryptic quality, they way they jump up out of nowhere, and the intricately woven patterns on their blooms that beguile and charm us. Your order is on the way and I hope the rain is too!

Cheers, Marcus

Hi Don,  thanks,  I hope to raise awareness about a wide range of bulbs. Much of what is currently written on this subject is hack journalism repeated ad infinitum without any first-hand experience. A book? I thought that technology was a thing of the past LOL!  Cheers,  Marcus

Beautifully written Marcus, the best way to start a Sunday morning and to contemplate that soon Cr speciosus 'Oxonion 'will begin to flower signalling the beginning of the bulb year. It is popping up in very unexpected places her and so makes quite an impact. I shall look forward to many more posts.

Hi Cathy,

Thanks!  That first autumn-flowering crocus always evokes a mix of bitter-sweet. Summer is nearing its end but another season begins! It has often occurred to me that I grow bulbs as an antidote to winter. I love the surprise they bring. It's like re-discovering a long lost treasure or a long-lost friend. Cheers, M

Just beautiful! Are there any Crocus that flower into late Spring/early Summer?

Hi Celeste,

Crocus grow in those cooler periods of the year. Taken as a genus, there is strong flush of flowering in the autumn,  this wanes a little in the dead of winter, and them bursts forth again in the early spring. Why?  They are small plants and they have had to find a way to compete with their larger neighbors. By emerging and flowering in winter,  often through snow,  they can do this because their rivals are asleep and the field is clear. The autumn-flowering ones have evolved to take advantage of late-season rain and the presence of pollinating insects and these are almost always lowland species. To paraphrase the famous statement by the Russian scientist, Dobzhansky, "nothing in botany makes sense except in the light of evolution". Cheers,  Marcus

Hi Marcus, I'm hoping to plant some snowdrops and crocus under a couple of standard azaleas that are growing in dappled shade. Would you recommend some varieties that will compliment each others flowering time?

Hi Sandra,
By far the best crocus to use to create pools of colour in dappled shade are the vernus and tommasinianus groups. They cope well in the open garden and spread by seed and offsets. The only drawback with them is that you are limited by the range of colours, which range from purple through violet to lilac and white as well. They usually flower in late winter and so coincide with snowdrop time. But if you want to be sure that they both carry through together then chose some of the later flowering galanthus, like G. plicatus or G. ikariae.

I hope this helps?

Cheers, Marcus

Hi Susan,

 

Thank you - so glad that you joined the conversation.

Cheers, Marcus

Hey Marcus I have just found your "ramblings" Loved the page on crocus . The ones I have bought over the years have settled in so well and throw up flower after flower. I love the way they suddenly appear out of nowhere ! Cheers Fiona

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