I think it was one of my favourite gardening writers, Hugh Johnston, who jokingly wrote that bulbs were surely invented by an industrial designer. For if one considers their exquisite functional shape and the sheer convenience of transporting and handling them … basically they have their own inbuilt packaging. The very neatness of this idea points to the work of some backroom genius.
But what truly fascinates us gardeners is how this ugly duckling of a package transforms into a thing of crystalline beauty, how it marks for us the passing of the seasons, and how it touches us deep inside with its powerful message of rebirth and renewal, for herein lies its true allure. We all have our favourites but for me no other bulb embodies these qualities better than the crocus.
A few Australian gardeners will already know this little treasure from the range of winter and early spring flowering varieties that appear in garden centres and in the big mail order catalogues at this time of the year. These are Dutch selections, predominantly of Crocus chrysanthus and Crocus vernus , and while these are valuable garden and pot plants they represent but a fraction of what is on offer. There are indeed over 80 species, most originating from around the Mediterranean region, and all produce gem-like, goblet-shaped flowers in shades of yellow, white, mauve and lilac-blue. In many cases their outer petals are conspicuously striped and stippled in darker hues and some species possess large and strongly coloured stigmas.
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 largely been one of scarcity and knowing where to look because these plants have traditionally been found inside the specialist bulb trade. Now with the ubiquity of the internet this is no longer the case and many species and varieties are within reach.
The other obstacle has been one of scale because individually crocuses are small plants and gardeners have had difficulty in knowing how to use them effectively in a garden setting. They must be either planted extravagantly, or better still, use species that will rapidly spread and colonise 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.
I have found that many of the Greek autumn flowering species are some of the best for Australian conditions. Species such as Crocus niveus, which bears huge, glistening white or lilac blooms in autumn and Crocus goulimyi, with its lilac-blue goblets so perfectly poised on slender tubes are absolute winners.
Both Crocus cartwrightianus and Crocus longiflorus have beautifully feathered flowers in white or lilac, with massive scarlet styles and Crocus tournefortii is similar but the style is a froth of orange branches. Incidentally while these are an added ornamental bonus to the gardener they are also of considerable commercial importance because this is the source of saffron. In one particular species, Crocus sativus, the red stigma, when dried is used as a dye, as well as a condiment, and at one time, an important medicine, and is among the world’s most costly spices.
For those who want to create large colonies quickly then Crocus kotschyanus with its large, lilac flowers, the bone-white Crocus ochroleucus or the plum-coloured Crocus nudiflorus are great choices and Crocus speciosus, with its long-tubed flowers in shades of violet-blue with deeper blue veins and much divided, bright orange styles is a standout.
For winter colour Crocus imperatii and Crocus laevigatus are hard to beat. Both beg for close up inspection because of their delicately striped and feathered outside petals, although the flowers of the former are the more dramatic as they change from bud to fully open to reveal the rich violet of their centres.
The trio of Greek Crocus sieberi species, with their intricately patterned winter flowers of purple, gold and white, are masterpieces of design prompting one to reflect on why nature has placed so heavy an emphasis on such complexity.
Surely not just for our enjoyment? Crocus sieberi ssp sieberi from Crete with its snow white flowers brushed with purple and black is an exquisite combination of style and colour. And Edward Augustus Bowles, that well-known aficionado of many of the dwarf bulbs, once described Crocus sieberi ssp sublimis ‘Tricolor’ as looking as “a richly purple egg… resting in a golden cup tied with a white napkin”.
The most important group of early spring flowers arise from the many and varied forms of Crocus vernus and Crocus 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. Despite having a very restricted range in nature, Crocus tommasinianus has broken its shackles in cultivation to produce a marvellous and varied range of selections. Some of the best include the rich, deep purple flowering ‘Whitewell Purple’, ‘Lilac Beauty’, a prolific selection with lavender-pink tinged flowers that are frosted silver-white and the delightful ‘Roseus’ which bears a succession of flowers in bright cyclamen pink and silvery-grey.
Crocus vernus is much more widespread throughout its native range and varies greatly in size, colour and markings. Sadly it is grossly misrepresented in Australia by a handful bloated commercial clones but there are far better examples to choose from. ‘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 one that I have acquired from Janis Ruksans famous nursery in Latvia and I look forward every spring to its dramatically feathered pale lavender flowers with their central boss of white and lemon.
Some have called me obsessed by these little gems … I prefer impressed because this truly is a case of where small IS beautiful!
[A wide range of crocus bulbs are available from these specialist nurseries:
Australia – Hill View Rare Plants