Plants - Flower Bulbs

Fall-flowering colchicums

Lorraine Hunter
Photography by
Edward de Grey

These dainty exhibitionists put on a dazzling fall show

Are there any “naked ladies” strutting their stuff in your garden? I’m talking about colchicums, those fall-flowering corms that send up their blossoms on bare stems at the end of the gardening season (their leaves don’t appear until early the following spring), which accounts for one of their common names: naked ladies. Other names, and the source of some confusion, are meadow saffron, autumn crocus and mysteria.

Although a few species do flower in spring, the most popular colchicums reserve their annual display for late summer and fall, when they present a rainbow of hues for a late-season show. So eager are they to perform that ripened corms can sometimes be found flowering at garden centres before they’re even planted.

Natives of the Mediterranean region and parts of Asia and Africa, several colchicum species were introduced to European gardeners in the late 16th century, where the plant remained popular for about 200 years. By the middle of the 18th century their popularity had waned, but with the current fascination with heirloom plants, colchicums are once again taking centre stage in early autumn gardens.

Hardy to Zone 4, colchicums grow from corms—short swollen stems (up to 10 centimetres across) that leaf out and flower from the top. Irregular in shape, one side of the corm is convex (curved outward) while the other is flat.

Most colchicum blooms are shaped like champagne goblets, but some are star-shaped. Rare double forms have so many petals that they resemble water lilies. Each corm produces several five- to 20-centimetre-wide, long-lasting flowers in shades of white, pink, violet, rose, mauve, purple or yellow. Some species have subtle checkered patterning, known as tessellation.

Corms for these low-growing (10 to 15 centimetres high) plants can be purchased in late summer and early autumn and should be planted right away. Newly planted colchicums should bloom within three to four weeks.

Photo: ‘The Giant’ autumn crocus, which grows to 20 centimetres and produces up to five globe-shaped, violet blooms.   

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