Many people grow the little crocuses of spring - small violet, white or yellow flowers that pop up through the snow or through the brown earth of the garden in the early months of spring or late months of winter. These small cheerful flowers are welcome because they tell us spring will soon be here.
Fewer people are familiar with fall-blooming bulbs, that stir to life once the heat of the summer is over and treat us with one last flush of flowers before winter comes. There are several different autumn blooming bulbs - some are actually crocus, while others are just called that.
This autumn when we visited Seattle, it was a treat to see Colchicum Autumnale in full bloom in local gardens. Although commonly called "autumn crocus", they are not true crocuses.
The flowers come up without leaves, and an established clump might have dozens of flowers. Another common name is "naked lady" - a name they share with other autumn-flowering bulbs.
There are some sixty species of Colchicum, native to Europe, the Mediterranean, and Central Asia, and several of them are commonly grown for their flowers. Colchicum contains the alkaloid colchicine, a toxin found in its leaves, seeds and large root-like corm. Medicines have been extracted from it - primarily as an emetic, but also as an anti-inflamatory. It inhibits the formation of uric acid crystals, which is vital in treating gout.
Toxic plants always seem to look a little weird to me. These are like crocuses ("croci"?) on steriods. Twice the size of the little flowers of spring, they burst up through the mulch of autumn-cleaned beds with strong pale buds that open into huge, chalice-shaped flowers. The color is a clear bright violet that shimmers so strikingly it's almost like an ultra-violet lamp. The unworldliness of it almost seems to warn - "don't eat this plant!"
I found several examples of colchicum on an early October walk at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle.
Named hybrids easily found in catalogs include "Violet Queen," "Lilac Wonder," and "The Giant." Some of the hybrids are striking for the unusual tessellation marking their petals, a characteristic from some of the species.
"Tessellation" is a word derived from the Latin "tesella" or small square, and refers to patterns similar to checkerboard, netting, or tiling. Here the petals are mottled like a disco-dancer's snakeskin platform boots.
This unusal pattern can be found in other plants as well. Orchids such as Phalaenopisis, Paphiopedilum and Vanda hybrids have net-like patterns on petals or even on leaves. The genus Fritillaria contains several species that have checkerboard patterned petals, including the charming fritillaria meleagris, or "guinea-hen flower."
Colchicums are also available in white, and there's a double-flowered variety called "Water Lily." But I've always loved the weird vibrating glow of the violet ones.
If you want to try growing Colchicum to make some ultra-violet waves in your own autumn garden, a good place to get them is through the mail-order firm McClure & Zimmerman. Or, if you know someone who has them, admire them now and then ask your friend to divide a clump next August, and give you a few corms.