Winter's Golden Stars

Crocus chrysanthus "Dorothy" Winter is generally regarded as the "dead spot" in the gardening calendar. Apart from a bit of cleaning up, it's a time to retreat indoors and let Jack Frost rule. For many, gardening becomes a mostly cerebral business with the focus firmly on the warmer, more fruitful months that lay ahead. 

But does it really have to be that way? Our comparatively mild winters with their goodly measure of clear sunny days practically beg us to be out there getting ahead of the year. And the garden too doesn't have to be a slumbering canvas on which to work and to dream. One needs something to look at now ; something that's at it best in the wintry gloom when all the rest have "given up the ghost" and those who grow early season bulbs have it in spades.

 

 Crocus chrysanthus "E.A. Bowles" Crocus chrysanthus "Herald"

 

These early bloomers create intensely coloured and intricately patterned displays, often with the added bonus of an exquisite scent. The combination of strong bursts of low angled light against the backdrop of a muted garden and the crystalline brilliance of the flowers produces a freshness and vitality that is unchallenged in any other season.

Winter brings the best out in the crocus. Almost overnight it sheds its more subdued autumn shades for a bolder palette and stronger stripes. The colours yellow and gold appear for the first time bringing a light and warmth previously missing and this post will take a quick look at some of the species involved.

One of my long time favourites is Crocus chysanthus and despite all our years together, the sight of those little tongues of yellow flame spearing up out of the dark earth, where yesterday there was nothing, still delights and surprises me. Throughout its native range this species is almost uniformly golden yellow but in cultivation many striking forms have arisen.

In recent times most of these varieties have found their way to Australia and are readily and cheaply available. “Gipsy Girl”, “Dorothy” and” Goldilocks” have outer petals variously striped and feathered on shades of gold and when closed they resemble tiny painted Russian eggs.

Crocus chrys. "Zwanenburg Bronze"  Crocus chrysanthus "Advance" Crocus chrysanthus "Cream Beauty"

 

Varieties such as “Zwanenberg Bronze”, “Herald” and “Jeannine” carry heavier, solid blotching from mahogany to burnished red, polished to the iridescent sheen of a ceramic glaze. While others such as, “E.P. Bowles”, “Cream Beauty” and “Advance” have eschewed such bold livery, opting instead for subtle, softer shades of cream, lemon and buttery yellow some flamed or finger-marked in powdery gray, slate or olive.

 

Crocus ancyrensis Crocus ancyrensis is a free-flowering species from Turkey bearing numerous golden orange flowers in mid-winter. As with C. chrysanthus these are delightfully honey-scented and remain fresh for long periods in spite of what the weather brings.

The commercial clone "Golden Bunch" is a freewheeling, exuberant plant capable of holding its own in the open garden and gaining territory while its rivals still sleep.

 

The flowers of Crocus olivieri always remind me of miniature golden goblets from the Looking Glass World of Alice. Perhaps the sort from which the Queen of Hearts might sip her malmsey to celebrate the demise of another hapless victim? This species has bright, orange-yellow, globular blooms with narrow "waists" and these are held above broad leaves with a distinct white stripe. They remain unmarked throughout their range from the Balkans and into Western Turkey but on a few of the eastern Aegean Islands and the adjacent Turkish coast its subspecies balansae breaks the mould with boldly marked outer petals in reddish brown and chocolate.

 

Crocus flavus The classic golden winter crocus is Crocus flavus whose flowers burst forth in an explosion of fiery, orange-yellow tones. When planted in threads and rills they can produce a lovely illusory effect of little bursts of fire breaking out from the frozen ground. This species closely follows the natural distribution of C. olivieri and the two often occur together but never give rise to hybrids although the former is the parent of “Yellow Mammoth” and “Dutch Yellow” two very important commercial clones.  To my eyes these lack the charm and elegance of their parent and look more like lollipops than crocus but some people can’t live without big so they have found an audience.

The crocus is an Old World plant. At its furthest eastern point the genus just tips over into China's Forbidden Territories along the edge of the Tien Shan Range and it is here that Crocus korolkowii lives. Its varnished, pale to deepest yellow flowers are variably marked with chestnut brown stripes and some have solid mahogany brown outer petals. You'd think that coming from such an extreme climate this would be a difficult plant to please but it asks for nothing more than a dry summer rest.

 

Crocus gargaricus A little known species, whose flowers have the same varnished, almost lacquered look, is Crocus gargaricus. Only recently introduced from Turkey, its flowers are a rich orange-yellow of fine substance and when fully open lie flat against the ground. Hill View has listed this in previously catalogues and is worth seeking out.

 

There are a number of other much rarer yellow species including, C. cvijicii growing in the high mountain passes of Greek Macedonia, C. sieheanus from along the old Silk Road trading route in Turkey, and the  diminuative C. danfordiae, the only crocus that can be either yellow, white or blue. These are not likely to be seen by gardeners but they are of great interest to those eccentrics among us who build collections. This is a world little understood by those who want their plants to be part of a cohesive setting in which to enjoy them. So perhaps the following two pictures and accompanying vignettes provide some clues as to why some people might collect.

"Sunspot" was once thought to be an abberent, but dramatic form of C. chrysanthus. However recent fieldwork by Ruksans has revealed it to be representative of a newly described species, Crocus muglaensis, which is local to a small area in western Turkey.

Crocus olivieri ssp balansae "Chocolate Soldier" was discovered and named by Edward Augustus Bowles sometime before the First World War and after that it disappeared. Then in 1997 a tiny clump was found growing in a garden bed at South Hayes near Oxford. This had been the home of the late Primrose Warburg, a great British bulb collector and galanthophile, who had granted permission to members of the RHS Crocus Group to retrieve anything of interest from her garden upon her death. Of course no one had expected anything like this. It was the botanical equivalent of coming face to face with the Dodo, albeit a very beautiful one.

Crocus olivieri ssp balansae "Chocolate Soldier" Crocus chrysanthus "Sunspot"

Despite their exquisite beauty crocus flowers are small and so to be effective garden plants they must be either planted extravagantly or in small groups in raised beds, sloping rock gardens or on top of walls where they are closer to the eye. Luckily many of the chrysanthus varieties are cheap enough to be planted in drifts and even if they start to merge and jumble their golden and yellow hues won't make a hodgepodge.

If space is an issue then growing crocus in pots is a good idea. Even if one does have the space its worth planting up a pot or two to bring into the house when they are in flower. Make sure to choose the ones that have a scent. C. chrysanthus has a delicious honeyed fragrance as do varieties like “Goldilocks”, “E.P. Bowles” and “Cream Beauty”.

Crocus chrysanthus "Goldilocks" Crocus chrysanthus "E.P. Bowles"

When planting crocus always choose an open sunny site with well-drained soil. Don't plant them under shrubs or really close to other plants because they hate competition. Crocus love lime and potash so before planting dig in a small handful of crushed dolomite and about half a handful of tomato fertilizer per square metre. If planting into rough grass or lawn the area needs to be lightly mulched over in the autumn and then the mulch removed just before the crocus appear in late June. This will suppress grass growth just enough to enable the crocus to get a good start and hold their own when it starts to grow in earnest later on. And hold off mowing until late spring because if you don't there won't be any crocus to enjoy next winter!

Having dispensed with the more prosaic practical advice, I'll leave the last, and fittingly more poetic, word to one of my favourite writers, and fellow crocophile, Frank Ronan: "There is something in the crocus that turns your heart over. Perhaps it is the way they make the most of everything: pushing up out of the ground at the first opportunity . . . always ready to throw their petals wide to any hint of sun. Easily pleased and willing to increase themselves . . . I don't think that there is a crocus that anyone could object to".

Crocus olivieri from Lake Abant in Turkey Crocus cvijicii from Tria Pigadia on Mt Vermion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

The sight of the yellow flowering species always makes me feel happy!! Especially in the dull days of mid winter!!

Hi Mat,

I knew you would like this story! As fellow Croconuts how could we not fall for these little jewells?

You know after all these years growing bulbs they are still my favourite even though they have caused me the occasional heartache.

Don't you love Ronan's description?

Cheers, Marcus

 

Thank you for such refreshment of the spirit. After the dose of politics this am, reading about crocuses so well and happily written, hopefulness has been restored. My crocuses are still leaves. The fritallaria haven't bloomed yet either. We have had unusually cold nights recently, including snow, after the long autumn. Do crocuses in pots like central heating?

Crocus growing in pots do not like central heating for long periods of time. I bring mine in to open the flowers at night or during dull weather. Or to encourage good pollination.

Hi Carolyn,

Thanks for your kind words. When I write I try to connect with some of the personal and emotional so its great to get a reply like yours. God knows why some people enjoy flowers and some people like inflicting pain? It's a question many greater minds than mine have grappled with I am sure.

Winter flowering crocus love cold so there is no need to coddle. As Mat suggests bringing them into the house for periods simulates the rythms that crocus like, stimulating them to open their flowers and spread their scent. But they don't need long periods of this. They are geared to diurnality. Most are mountain plants and you only have to see them in their native haunts to understand this clearly.

Cheers, Marcus

Oh, Dear! These are wonderful things. I have flowered and enjoyed many of the plants described. The problem is that they tend to not open under low-light conditions, so that their full beauty is not available during my winter: is that why the reverse of the buds is so assiduously described by UK growers? Do they seldom see the open flowers of winter-flowering crocus? Many of the descriptions that I read in the UK literature seem to indicate this ... My own "collection" lives in pots, but I dream of managing the time to plant some in the open garden: at this season, my efforts are mostly directed towards weeding(!) pruning, and re-potting winter-dormant bulbs. Thank you for this further instalment of the "Big Book"! Best regards, Don.

Hi Don,

Great to have your comments. I know you have grown many of these plants but I am surprised that you would have a light problem where you live. As Ronan says, they don't need much encouragement to open their flowers, and we are so much more blessed than our northern friends. In the wild these plants live in mountains and in winter they are dormant usually under loads of snow. They emerge in the spring as the snow melts, their roots in very moist soil but their flowers flung open into dry, sunny skies, with thousands of attendant pollinators hovering. These conditions remain fairly constant because once spring comes, unlike southern Australia, it stays that way. But we all have to adapt including our little crocus friends and they can. They make the most of our conditions, still flower well and multiply and seed, especially some of the Crocus chrysanthus varieties, Crocus flavus and Crocus olivieri. Pots give one a better measure of control but correct siting is everything in the open garden.

Cheers, Marcus

Every winter I anticipate the event of blooming Cr ancyrensis ........ the italians would say... 'il sole per terra', an apt description for that time of the year. Though it is a little more persistent than many blooms in winter it is still elusively brief . As with so many of gardens joys much of that joy is in the anticipation. Every year I form the intention to paint Cr ancyrensis and every year the blooms have vanished before my intention has consolidated. Next year! Yellow is confoundingly hard to paint and the saturation of that egg yolk.........maybe that is the essence of my avoidance!

Hi Cathy,

Thanks for your comments, they are always appreciated. Maybe some of my earlier comments to Don are apt here as well. A longer extension of the flowering period can be achieved by siting the plants where they get little overhead water and no wind, also slugs will eat the blooms so bait can be added to the mix. Its best to experiment with different varieties, where one won't perform another will. I have found C. flavus a very good plant for Australian conditons as are nearly all of the C. chrysanthus varieties but especially "Advance", Zwanenburg Bronze" and "Jeannine".

I know the problems with botanical artists have with yellow. My partner Suzie Jarick baulks every time I ask her to paint Narcissus bulbocodium varieites!

Cheers, Marcus

Dear Marcus, I love your writing! The article is wonderfully informative but I enjoyed the way you wrote about these lovely bulbs. You may be interested in my gardening blog ahamiltongarden.tumblr.com

Hi Kate, 

Thanks for your encouragement!  I NEVER have enough time to do all I want but I try.

I'll go take a look at yours. Currently my all time favourite blog is The Miserable Gardener. This is the creation of one Bob Nold from Denver who uses his pure bred border collie, Chess, as the front "man" and narrator.  It's funny, it's poignant,  it's real and if's gold!

Cheers,  Marcus

Lovely to see these flowers Marcus why do we love these little treasures so much. They remind me of your talk to us Matt it was lovely to see all you own Crocus crosses. Kathy may be you need to paint like the Master Italians did, using egg to get the colours that are needed, at least I think it was the Italian Masters that used egg in their paints to combine and get those beautiful colours. Love Viv

Hi Viv, lovely to have your comments.  Why do we love them so much?  They give us hope,  they delight us,  they surprise us,  and they beguile us with their beauty. In short,  they are good for our soul. Yellow is the color of hope and happiness and it is the color of the sun so each flower is a little ray of sunshine. 

Cheers,  Marcus

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