Gardens Ablaze

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Crocus is one of those plants that is overlooked by the home gardener far too often, and that is truly a shame.  The bulbs (or corms in some cases) are cheap, readily available, and easy to grow, and varieties include both fall and spring bloomers.  These are plants that will perform admirably and provide vivid colors in the very seasons in which color is difficult to achieve. Due to their smaller stature, Crocus are more effective planted in drifts rather than just a plant or two here and there, so do go the extra mile and get as many as you can afford, regardless of whether you choose autumn or spring blooming varieties.  All Crocus varieties are tough, hardy little plants, but they hate wet feet, so do provide a site with good drainage for best results.

Autumn Flowering Crocus:  There are about 30 species of crocus that bloom in the fall.  The most common and most well-known of these is the Saffron Crocus, or Crocus Sativa, which is the source of the rather expensive spice, Saffron.  6-12 inch long leaves grow for a brief time in the spring, and then disappear, followed by purple flowers (white flowers are now also available) on leafless stalks in the early fall.  The show will go on for about three weeks. Bulbs should be planted in a sunny area.  Plant about 8 inches deep in July or August. If you have burrowing pests, surround the corms with sharp stones at planting time. If squirrels are a problem plant some moth balls alongside the bulbs.  Squirrels don't like the smell of mothballs. Fertilize with a fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro at planting time and again right after flowering. Saffron is harvested from the stigmas, or yellow centers of the flowers, which can be dried and used to flavor and color foods, or used as a dye for fabrics.  Saffron has a strong aroma and a somewhat bitter taste.  To harvest, pinch the stigma from the flower and toast in a dry skillet just until you start to smell the aroma.  Once dry, grind to a powder and store in an airtight container.  It takes about 1/2 teaspoon of Saffron to flavor 1 cup of rice.  One word of caution - if you are growing Crocus for harvest of Saffron, do make doubly sure that you have the Crocus Sativa variety, because most other Crocus types are very poisonous. 

The popular Autumn Crocus or Colchicum Autumnale is actually not a true Crocus and is a member of the Lily family.   The two can be differentiated in that true Crocus has 3 stamens and Crocus Autumnale has 6.  The flowers arise on leafless stalks from corms in early fall and can be white, pink, lavender, or purple.  The tulip-like leaves follow a few weeks later and last until early summer.  This is a highly poisonous plant, so don't confuse it with Crocus Sativa above.  This Crocus is the most cold tolerant of all it's brothers, and is reliably hardy to Zone 4.   Plant in July or August for fall bloom.  For a colorful indoor display, set corms in a dish filled with pebbles and water and watch the show, but be sure to keep out of reach of children and animals.  Poisoning symptoms from Crocus Autumnale are similar to arsenic poisoning.  On a high note, however, this is an excellent landscape choice for those seeking deer resistant plants for the home garden. 

Winter & Spring Flowering Crocus:  These are the Crocuses we all know and love.  The earliest bloomer of these is the Snow Crocus, or Crocus chrysanthus.  This is a very hardy Crocus (zones 3-9) that naturalizes well over time.  The blooms are not as big as the Dutch Crocus (see below), but there are more blooms per bulb to make up for it.  Plants grow to 3-4 inches high and flower colors include shades of yellow, white, blue, purple, and bi-colors.  This variety will do well in rock gardens, lawns, borders, and under trees and shrubs. 

The Dutch Crocus, or Crocus Vernus, sports the largest blooms of all the Crocuses, and is probably the most popular variety of this versatile plant.  Flower colors include shades of yellow, purple, white, and bi-colors.  Try planting in lawns, under trees, or in beds or borders for a show you won't soon forget. 

Regardless of the type of Crocus you ultimately choose, plant in the fall according to package directions.  Depending on the variety, Crocus needs to be planted from 2 to 8 inches deep.  Again, use sharp rock around the planting hole if burrowing pests are present in the landscape. 

Lastly, have some fun with your Crocus.  If you have children, make their initials in the lawn, or even do a smiley face.  Or plant along a walkway for a fabulous temporary edging that will spring up year after year.  Crocus can be planted deep enough for you to have other plants along the same border the rest of the year.  Use some imagination!  If you do plant in the lawn, be sure to wait until the leaves begin to yellow and wither before mowing, or you won't have flowers next year.

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