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