Wildlife & Nature to See in February : Crocus

Another welcome sight from this varied and early flower.

Wildlife to See in February : Crocus

crocus1This month I have been lucky enough to speak to several experts about one of Britain’s earliest spring flowers, the crocus.

Despite being part of the backdrop for spring woodlands, none of the crocus species in the UK are actually native, although many varieties flourish here, but I want this column to support the crocus as herald of an English spring. Tony Goode, of the UK Crocus Group, told me: “The ones which can be seen within UK nature reserves are Crocus vernus ssp vernus in Berkshire and Crocus nudiflorus (autumn flowering) in Nottingham and other locations. Amateur gardeners and botanic gardens such as Wisley grow many other species. Of the 70 species described perhaps 90% are grown although the rarest ones will be restricted to a few specialist growers.”

So if crocuses aren’t native to Britain – where do they come from? Depending on the specific species, they can be found growing wild across much of central and southern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and China. Their glorious colours and tendency to bloom early made them popular with gardeners, and so they were brought over to the UK, where they (luckily) grow without seeming to affect other species. Gradually bulbs have made their way into woodlands to grow wild, perhaps because of gardeners dumping them after producing too many. One of the most common species now found growing wild is the Crocus tommasinianus which has delicate lilac flowers and narrow leaves, and was first recorded in woodlands in 1963.

Crocuses come in a wide and appealing range of colours, from a distinctive mauve to pale yellow or white. I asked Tony Goode what it was that made him crazy about the crocus: “I was attracted by the jewel-like flowers which appear as if from nowhere in the early days of spring. The flowers can be short-lived but perhaps this adds to their mystique. I started my collection when living in a small flat with just window-boxes for a garden, these and other dwarf bulbs make excellent subjects for pots. They are also well suited to troughs and other outdoor containers while they can brighten up the rock garden in spring. All enjoy a sunny position and well drained soil in the garden.”

CrocusCrocuses are part of the iris family and are perennial, which literally translates as a plant that lives for two or more years. Perennials typically flower during spring, and die back over the winter months, although certain types of crocus are in fact autumn bloomers, one of these being the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus. Saffron crocuses are now entirely cultivated, as around 3,000 years ago humans began selectively breeding plants with longer stigmas. Since then saffron has been used in the treatment of 90 documented illnesses, as well as used as a dye and perfume. Romantic portrayals of saffron have included Cleopatra using it in her baths, and the Greek character Crocus being transformed into a flower.

The first introduction I had to crocuses was probably a childhood visit to the village of Saffron Walden, which is fairly near Cambridge. As the name suggests, the village was famed for producing most of Britain’s saffron. I spoke to Maureen Evans from Saffron Walden’s museum, who told me: “Saffron crocuses flourished here for over 300 years, from about 1400 to 1700 and gave the town its name – but it is a cultivated crop rather than a wild flower. They are not to be confused with colchicum, aka ‘naked ladies’ – which is also autumn flowering but poisonous – the crocus sativus has a pale purple flower and the distinctive three red stigmas produce the yellow dye/flavouring. They were also used medicinally from ancient times. It is now hard to the species grow here, perhaps due to climate change, and we import the corms from the Netherlands in summer when dormant and sell them in the museum during August each year.” For more information about the Saffron Walden Museum, see its society page: http://www.swmuseumsoc.org.uk/

So the crocus has a big part in British history, what about in literature? Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote this poem:

The Crocus

Beneath the sunny autumn sky,
With gold leaves dropping round,
We sought, my little friend and I,
The consecrated ground,
Where, calm beneath the holy cross,
O’ershadowed by sweet skies,
Sleeps tranquilly that youthful form,
Those blue unclouded eyes.

Around the soft, green swelling mound
We scooped the earth away,
And buried deep the crocus-bulbs
Against a coming day.
“These roots are dry, and brown, and sere;
Why plant them here?” he said,
“To leave them, all the winter long,
So desolate and dead.”

“Dear child, within each sere dead form
There sleeps a living flower,
And angel-like it shall arise
In spring’s returning hour.”
Ah, deeper down cold, dark, and chill
We buried our heart’s flower,
But angel-like shall he arise
In spring’s immortal hour.

In blue and yellow from its grave
Springs up the crocus fair,
And God shall raise those bright blue eyes,
Those sunny waves of hair.
Not for a fading summer’s morn,
Not for a fleeting hour,
But for an endless age of bliss,
Shall rise our heart’s dear flower

Virginia Woolf wrote an essay called ‘The Patron and the Crocus’, in which she talks about the need of a writer to address their audience: “the writer who has been moved by the sight of the first crocus in Kensington Gardens has, before he sets pen to paper, to choose from a crowd of competitors the particular patron who suits him best. It is futile to say, ‘Dismiss them all; think only of your crocus,’ because writing is a method of communication; and the crocus is an imperfect crocus until it has been shared. The first man or the last may write for himself alone, but he is an exception and an unenviable one at that, and the gulls are welcome to his works if the gulls can read them.”

Ok, so it’s not native, but a large percentage of the British landscape isn’t. Just think of grey squirrels, fallow deer and buddleia. I think with such a rich history, we can accept the crocus as a staple of the British woodland, and delight in its delicate flowers this spring.

For information on growing specialist crocuses, visit www.srgc.org.uk or www.thealpinegardensociety.net

Article by Lizzy Dening You can follow Lizzy on Twitter or go to her website