Colchicum Waterlily growing in the woodland edge of the EA Bowles Garden at RHS Wisley earlier this week. Delicate they look, but are clearly tough enough to rough it out with the other woodland floor dwellers, like the Arum marmoratum in the foreground there.
The leaves make a brief appearance in spring but are gone by midsummer, so this display appears to come from nothing – and very welcome it is too. As long as they are sheltered from the midday sun and the ground doesn’t dry out in summer, these are happy souls.
The name is very descriptive, and these are part of the lily family, not the crocus (see Val Bourne later) and is a heritage variety introduced in 1928 (or thereabouts), but don’t try and sink these bulbs into a pond…
Elsewhere, numerous varieties – white, pink, lilac of delicate shades – are planted in directly beneath (small) tree canopies, abutting the trunk, a can obviously tough it out with tree roots too, lifting an otherwise plain dirt circle cut out from the surrounding open lawns.
Val Bourne says ‘the wow fractor is as great as ever’ with autumnal colchicum crocuses
The unrivalled queen of the autumn crocuses is Colchicum speciosum ‘Album’. The pure-white goblets, held high on cool green necks in the autumn sunlight, are a truly magnificent sight. In A Handbook of Crocus and Colchicums, published in 1924, E A Bowles recorded that “the first roots that were sold changed hands at the price of five guineas each”. Today they are still expensive – a single bulb costs £6 to £8 from a specialist nursery – but the wow factor is as great as ever.
The term autumn crocus is misleading; it relates specifically to the colchicum, a bulbous plant named after Colchis, a region on the Black Sea in Georgia. There are major botanical differences between the two, but gardeners can tell them apart because crocuses have three stamens and flattened, neat, papery corms, while colchicums have six stamens and waxy, irregular corms covered in a dark-brown, leathery skin. Most colchicums also produce their flowers without any foliage and this has given rise to the common name of Naked Ladies or Naked Boys. Confusingly, several species of crocus do flower in the autumn, but these are known as autumn-flowering crocus – not autumn crocuses.
Colchicums are members of the lily family (Liliaceae) and there are roughly 65 species worldwide. C. speciosum grows wild in northern Turkey, Iran and Russia. The nursery Backhouse of York (1816-1955) introduced C. speciosum ‘Album’ and a white-centred, petunia-purple form called ‘Atrorubens’ in the early 20th century. A relative, R O Backhouse of Sutton Court in Herts, later bred a series that he named after renowned Victorians, which included the deep-pink ‘Huxley’ and the rose-pink ‘Darwin’.
We have our own native, Colchicum autumnale, commonly known as Meadow Saffron. Found in damp meadows in the western half of Britain, it pushes through the grass in early September, the blue-pink flowers opening widely when the sun shines. Avoid the white form: the flowers are smaller and it’s known as “dirty bones” because of its dull ivory colouring.
Colchicums need moisture-retentive, fertile soil to flower well. They’re best grown in a sheltered spot that enjoys afternoon sun because this encourages a good succession of wide-open flowers. In deep shade, you’ll only get a very few spindly ones.
Dry bulbs are most readily available in July or August and should be planted, as soon as they arrive, at a depth of 7.5cm to 10cm (3in to 4in). Specialist nurseries will supply plants at other times, too.
Enrich poorer soils by adding good friable compost. However if yours tends to be heavy, improve the drainage by adding coarse grit. Top dress with well-rotted manure or garden compost during dormancy (from November until February) and use a foliar feed, such as seaweed extract, in spring.
Don’t cut unsightly leaves off; they need to die down naturally to replenish the corm.
How to propagate
Colchicums should be divided every fourth year when the leaves have died – so, in July or August, lift and replant immediately.
The ghostly Colchicum speciosum ‘Album’ looks even more dramatic against the black-leafed, grass-like Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ and the dark foliage of heucheras. Pink colchicums mix well with sun-loving, silver-foliage plants in gravel or on a scree. Artemisia stelleriana and A. alba ‘Canescens’ both work well.
Cotinus, hardy fuchsias and hydrangeas all make excellent overhead partners in small gardens, particularly when planted on the outer fringes.
And finally, a little insight here too on the poisonous qualities of this beautiful plant and beware if there is a convenient cholera outbreak, murder may follow…