Friday, 7 March 2014

What’s so good about: crocuses?

I took some cracking photos of crocuses this week and, though I tweeted them instantly, I wondered if it might be too much to post them to the blog, having featured an image of a crowd of crocuses at the head of last week’s post. Well. Poo to that with knobs on. The sun’s out, fast fading snowdrops are old news, and the crocuses are coming into their own.

Crocus. It’s an awkward word, isn’t it? It’s much more satisfying to pronounce the Greek word from which it derives (krokos), although this itself apparently has its root in the semitic languages of the mediterranean area, and refers explicitly to the saffron for which the stamens are harvested (from Crocus sativas, which is the autumn flowering saffron crocus and not, confusingly, the autumn crocus Colchicum autumnal which – to confound matters further – isn’t in fact a crocus at all, but a member of the lily family. The crocus, as any fule kno, is in the iris family). I’m also aware that the plural should almost certainly be croci, but can’t quite bring myself to write it, let alone say it. Crocuses it is, then.

What do I like so much about crocuses? Aside from the colours – white ones and cream ones and orange ones and mauve ones and deep purple ones and even stripy ones – I’m rather fond of the leaves. Described technically as ensiform (sword shaped), the leaves are long, thin, and grass like, although there are considerably fewer leaves to each corm than there would be to a tuft of grass, so you’re unlikely to mistake one for the other. Quite apart from which, the leaf of the crocus usually features a central silvery-white stripe along the whole length. If I’m honest, they are not things of great beauty; but their appearance in February is a sign that some colour is about to appear in the garden. Unless you spend an awful lot of time staring at the ground as I do, it won’t be the leaves that you notice, but the flowers. Each flower has six petals, two whorls of three, one cupping the other; the outermost often being slightly larger. When closed, these give the flower its characteristic goblet shape, but in full sun some species – particularly C. tomasianus with its longer, slender petals – will open out fully, exposing stigma and stamens in colours ranging from golden yellow to a deep, egg-yolk orange. Welcome, bright splashes of colour in drifts across the garden, just the thing to banish the winter blues.

Where to plant?
Lawns are better than beds or borders, where the corms may be disturbed by weeding and planting activity. Most crocuses appreciate full sun – many will sulk and refuse point blank to open their flowers without it. Drainage is important – although you can grow crocus with a degree of success on clay soils, incorporating grit is a good idea, as is avoiding areas which become waterlogged.

How to plant?
In short, in great numbers. “Splurging is the only way with crocus,” writes Anna Pavord in Bulb, and you can’t really argue with that. Anything less than a generous expanse looks plain silly, like an afterthought. Plant each corm to a depth three times its own height, and one and a half times its width apart (as the corms are not large, this is close, meaning that one or two bags from the garden centre won’t achieve much of an effect. It’s best to buy in large quantities from a bulb wholesaler, which works out at under ten pounds for a hundred corms). The drifts will bulk up by seeding, but it is important to remember not to mow the grass for a couple of weeks after the foliage has died back, a period which will allow the seed pods resting on the ground to open and release their cargo into the sward.

Crocuses also look wonderful planted in containers, which can be brought into the house to enjoy their scent as well as their cheery flowers. Use a free draining compost, incorporate a sprinkling of bonemeal and top dress with fine grit.

When to buy?
Autumn flowering varieties should be available as corms to plant now. Spring flowered varieties are usually available from September.

Autumn crocuses of note
In addition to C. sativas grown for saffron, the autumn flowering crocuses also include one of the bluest flowered species, Crocus pulchellus, while the award for the craziest stigma (the orangey lady parts of the flower) goes to Crocus tournefortii. Autumn flowering varieties should be available as corms to plant now. Spring flowered varieties are usually available from September.

The Good Taste Brigade
A word of warning with which to end. There is, as with many things in the world of gardening, an element of snobbery regarding certain varieties. The larger flowered crocuses – cultivars of C. vernus – appear to be considered by some to be rather uncouth. Particularly the all white 'Jeanne d'Arc', and the cheerfully striped 'Pickwick'. I think Pickwick’s rather fun, and Joan of Arc is splendid. Perhaps care should be taken not to plant these with more delicate forms. But then again, perhaps not.