Crocus - Jim Chatfield

My favorite poem this time of year, evoking the rollercoaster ride and thrills of Spring, is a short one from Lilja Rogers:“First the howling winds awoke us/Then the rains came down to soak us/Now before the mind can focus/Crocus.”

Crocus pushing up through the leaf moldCrocuspushing up through the leaves in the ChatScape in a previous Spring.

I was thinking of this two weeks ago when croci were first trying to come out in northeast Ohio and I was preparing a talk on “Having Fun With Plant Families”. I had plenty of material already, but a few hours before the talk once I decided to start with this poem, I pondered, hmm, what is the family of the genusCrocus. That started me down the garden path of learning and relearning aboutCrocus,including some very important distinctions.

First things first,Crocusis in the iris family, the Iridaceae. I knewCrocuswas a monocot, the class of plants with single cotyledons (seed leaves), along with grasses, sedges, and more closely, lilies. But had not remembered about the Iridaceae; it is a family with over 80 genera (a family is a group of related genera) and over 1700 species.

IrisAnIrisimage, taken in New York City in a previous Spring. An obvious member of the Iridaceae.

These genera includeIris, Gladiolus, Sisyrinchium(the lovely blue-eyedgrass – not really a grass), and - Crocus. A distinctive feature of genera in the Iridaceae is that the male flower parts include three pollen-bearing stamens and the female flower parts consist of a pollen-receiving stigma atop the stalk-like style, often three-parted, with the ovary at the base. Remember this.

GladiolusGladiolus from the ChatScape last year. Note the three-part style.

GladiolusGladiolus with its three stamens.

GladiolusAgain, the three stamens. So cool.

Blue-eyed grassSisyrinchium,blue-eyedgrass, is such a lovely wildflower in Spring. Not out yet.

Blue-eyed grassThis is my favorite feature for blue-eyed grass. It livens up weedy areas with a cheery wink. Horticultural cultivars available.

For now. Let us turn back toCrocus.Species in the genus are native from central Europe to China, with many of the garden croci we plant and are enjoying now being the “Dutch” crocus,Crocus vernus.

Crocus taken on the High Line Crocus image taken on the High Line in NYC (closed now

this Spring)

The autumn crocus,Crocus sativus,is the source of saffron, the lovely golden- to orangish-yellow colored spice that is so wonderfully used in cuisine, such as the Spanish dish paella, in French bouillabaisse, and in Italian risotto. It is also used as a food coloring, a dye, and in fabrics. Saffron threads are stigmas ofCrocus sativus.Now, remember thatCrocus,as a genus in the Iridaceae, has three stamens and one three-parted style.

Saffron brom WIkipediaNot really my picture.Saffron. From Crocus sativus stigmas.

But there is another crocus-like plant that blooms in the Autumn, and this is where I realized I was unclear about the identity and particulars of another plant that is called “Autumn crocus”. This other plant should be called Autumncrocus or Autumn-crocus to signify that it is not a true member of the genusCrocus.It is also commonly called naked ladies or meadow-saffron. It is the plantColchicum autumnale.

Autumn-crocusAutumn-crocus and palm tree at Logan Botanic Garden in southern Scotland taken this past Autumn.

Autumn-crocusColchicum autumnale.Note the six stamens.

I am probably not alone in a mind smerging ofColchicum autumnalethis late-in-the-growing-season bloomer, with the true “Autumn crocus”,Crocus sativus, the plant that produces saffron. They are different plants, andColchicumis not even in the same plant family. It is a member of the Colchicaceae rather than the Iridaceae. Importantly,Colchicum autumnaleand related plants produce colchicine and colchicine-related products.

Colchicine is used to treat gout and certain other medical conditions, and Autumn-crocus has been used for millenia to treat for swollen joints. According to Wikipedia, with medical references cited and checked, colchicine available generically in the UK by the National Health System was available in 2019 for just over 7 pounds in cost for a month’s supply; in the U.S. the wholesale cost for that supply is just over $250.    

Colchicine is also a mutagen long-used by plant breeders to produce tetraploids and octoploids (multiples of chromosomes) resulting, for example, in double flowers on crabapples. Colchicine used for medical conditions is a classic case of “the dose makes the poison”; it is highly toxic if used therapeutically at even mild dosages in excess of recommended rates. Some have also posited it could be a carcinogen and with other developmental and reproductive toxicities, but the verdict is unclear. 

Colchicumis a genus with over 160 species.Colchicum autumnaleis native to Great Britain and Ireland. The Colchicaceae has 15 or so genera (there are always arguments among classifiers) and over 280 species. Other genera in the family are less well-known, but includeOrnithoglossumandIphigenia.

Note: How can you easily tell the difference betweenCrocusandColchicum,or the difference between genera in the Iridaceae and the Colchidaceae?Crocusand the Iridaceae genera have three stamens and one style. Colchicumand the Colchidaceae genera have six stamens and three styles. Now, come Autumn we can practice identifying the difference between Autumn crocus and Autumncrocus!   

So, now I certainly know more aboutCrocusand hope you do too. Finally, for fun, while putting this together, I also found some additional quotes and poems about croci. Ah, Google. From AZ Quotes: for “Crocuses”

crocus and bee Bee-lovedCrocus vernusin a previous ChatScape Spring.

You might think that after thousands of years of coming up too soon and getting frozen, the crocus family would have had a little sense knocked into it.”– Robert Benchley

And all the woods are alive with the murmur and sound of Spring,

And the rose-bud breaks into pink on the climbing briar,

And the crocus-bed is a quivering moon of fire

Girdled round with the belt of an amethyst ring.”– Oscar Wilde.

Crocus in the ChatScape

“A single crocus blossom ought to be enough to convince our heart that springtime, no matter how predictable, is somehow a gift, gratuitous, gratis, a grace.” – David Stedindl-Rast.

The bed of flowers

Loosens amain,

The beauteous snowdrops

Droop o'er the plain.

The crocus opens

Its glowing bud,

Like emeralds others,

Others, like blood.

With saucy gesture

Primroses flare,

And roguish violets,

Hidden with care;

And whatsoever

There stirs and strives,

The Spring's contented,

It works and thrives.”

  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.