Winter's Golden Stars
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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".