There’s nothing like a field full of autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) to make a gorgeous, sunny September day seem even more perfect. When the bulbs are planted in a spread-out mass like this, the Wow Factor is just incredible! It makes for a stunning, spring-like display for those of us who get tired of the more classic autumn flowers like mums or asters, or the traditional fall hues of russet, gold, and ginger.
I took these pictures at Chanticleer, an extraordinary public garden in the Pennsylvania countryside, just 30 minutes from Philly. If you’re ever in the area, I would urge you to visit Chanticleer. It’s a true feast for the eyes and a far cry from most of the controlled, manicured botanical gardens you’ve probably visited in the past. Plantings are lush and innovative and you get a sense that the gardeners here are playful and eclectic.
Despite the resemblance to the familiar spring bulb, colchicum is not a true crocus at all, but a member of the lily family. The corms send up their foliage in the spring, but the leaves yellow and fade by mid-summer and the plant seems to disappear back into the ground until fall – when goblet-shaped flowers in shades of pink and purple suddenly arise on naked stems.
There are many hybridized forms of colchicum. The double-flowered cultivar ‘Waterlily’ is truly stunning and really does resemble its namesake. ‘Giant’ grows up to a foot tall with larger blooms and ‘Album’ features pristine white flowers.
You can naturalize colchicum in a lawn, just like you see here, or in drifts in a sunny flower border. You’ll want to plant colchicum during late summer – from the Fourth of July to Labor Day is ideal and will give them time to flower by late September or October. You may want to choose a spot where the yellowing leaves will be camouflaged by summer flowers or a low groundcover. And note that the corms are toxic. This is unlikely to pose a safety hazard unless you eat them, and as a bonus it makes the plant unpalatable to critters like squirrels and deer that might feed on other types of bulbs.
Supposedly colchicum corms can be forced in water on a sunny windowsill, but I’ve never known anyone to use them for this purpose – perhaps because they are relatively expensive, and forced bulbs are often discarded after they bloom.