Plants - Flower Bulbs

Fall-flowering colchicums

Lorraine Hunter
Photography by
Edward de Grey

These dainty exhibitionists put on a dazzling fall show

Colchicum atropurpureum Each corm bears up to three deep purple flowers that can each reach three centimetres in length.

C. autumnale This is the most common species and produces up to six vibrant, lavender-pink flowers per corm in autumn.

C. a. ‘Alboplenum’ A highly sought-after, rare, old cultivar prized for its massive, double, white blooms that resemble a water lily’s. Each flower can have up to 20 narrow petals about five centimetres long.

C. bivonae ‘Apollo’ Up to six large, checkered, purple to deep magenta, goblet-shaped flowers are produced in abundance in late summer.

C. byzantinum Each corm can produce up to 20 fragrant, mauve-pink flowers with white centres in late fall.

C. cilicicum This hardy variety produces from three to 25 richly hued, rose-purple, starry flowers in late summer with a delicate, honey-like fragrance. Leaves emerge immediately after flowering.

C. speciosum A semi-shade-tolerant species that boasts massive crocus-shaped, purple flowers with white centres in early fall. Corms naturalize rapidly but are not invasive.

C. s. ‘Album’ This beautiful, highly coveted form has white flowers
resembling tiny tulips.

C. ‘Waterlily’ Each corm produces up to five lavish blooms with 20 or more, narrow, solid mauve petals each in early to mid-autumn.

Mistaken identity
Many people confuse colchicums with crocuses. The most common variety, Colchicum autumnale, is often called autumn crocus. Colchicum is a genus of about 45 species that belong to the lily family (Liliaceae), while true crocuses, some of which also bloom in fall, belong to the iris family (Iridaceae). One way to tell them apart: colchicums have six stamens; crocuses, three.

The true saffron crocus is Crocus sativus, from which edible saffron is produced. It’s important to differentiate between the two because all parts of the colchicum are highly toxic if ingested, and contact with the skin may cause irritation. Despite this, colchicum is valued for its medicinal properties and used in the treatment of gout and rheumatism.

Another common name, mysteria, is thought to date back to the ancient Greeks, bringing us to their botanical name, Colchicum, from their origin in Colchis, on the shores of the Black Sea, home of the sorceress Medea, of ancient Greek mythology. Known to be an expert in the use of medicinal  herbs, she poisoned her children to punish her faithless husband, Jason, who had led the Argonauts in the quest for the Golden Fleece. In fact, the word medicine comes from the name Medea.

Photo: ‘Waterlily’ autumn crocus, which can produce up to five stunning blooms. 

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