“Behold, my friends. The spring is come. The earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun. And we shall soon see the results of their love.” – Sitting Bull
It snowed during the night. But the snow turned to rain early in the morning. And by the afternoon, the sun was shining, bright and warm. I was mulling over the winter’s damage to yard trees and shrubs and considering the clean-up that lay ahead when something caught my eye; a splash of color amidst the thawing mat of leaves and needles, and patches of icy, dirty snow still covering the winter-weary ground. I took a few steps toward it and sure enough. There they were. The first of the spring crocuses; a cheery reminder that winter would soon be coming to an end and that the full beauty of spring lies ahead.
Common, But Not Native
Crocuses are native to Asia, North Africa, and Europe. They were introduced to North America from Europe and are now commonly cultivated in home gardens across the continent. The alpine species (Crocus vernus) is the principal ancestor of the common garden crocus.
In northern New York, crocuses typically bloom any time from late March through mid-April, depending on your location and the duration of the winter season. The flowers characteristically close at night and may remain closed or partially-closed on cloudy days; opening up with the morning sun or whenever the sun is shining. And while they may not have the stateliness of daffodils or the opulence of tulips, the fact that they’re such remarkably durable, easy to grow, incredibly early bloomers that return every year and multiply in attention-grabbing clumps, makes them a delightful addition to any yard or flower garden.
Crocuses are in the Iris Family
Crocus is a genus of between 80 and 100 different flowering perennial plants, depending on who you ask. The genus includes some of the earliest flowering spring ephemerals (a term used to describe flowers that bloom only for short periods of time). All species in the genus are grown from corms; compressed vertical, fleshy, underground plant parts that act as food-storage structures, much like bulbs or tubers.
They’re members of the Iridaceae family (order Asparagales), making them a distant relative of the irises. Plants in this family have their flower parts in multiples of three: three sepals, three true petals, and three stamens.
Crocus in Home Gardens and Landscapes
Although many species of crocus exist in nature, only 30 or so have actually been cultivated. And they’re highly sought after.
Crocuses are most-commonly planted in garden beds but they’re also sown along walkways and driveways, under deciduous trees (since they bloom before the leaves appear), or in front of shrubs. Commonly-cultivated varieties naturalize easily and will return, multiplying into larger clumps, year after year.
They can be surprisingly attractive when established in lawns. Homeowners must refrain from mowing crocus-filled lawns, however, until the leaves of the crocus plants die off (4 to 6 weeks after the flowers fade), which will allow the plants to store energy in newly developing corms; thereby enabling the plants to produce successfully in the future.
Crocus is planted in the fall in areas offering full to partial sun. Gardeners looking for a striking display of flowers during the first season of bloom should plant corms 2 inches apart, in holes 2.5 to 3 inches deep. Spacing corms 4 inches apart will allow them to easily multiply in the years that follow; filling in any empty spaces as they bloom.
Most growers find planting crocuses in tidy clumps, rather than in rows, more aesthetically pleasing. Should the plants become too crowded and / or bloom less, you can just dig up the clumps and divide the tubers. Then replant them in smaller clumps and you’ll have even more blooms.
What’s in a Name?
The name Crocus dates back thousands of years, with roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean languages. The anglicized name comes from the Greek, ‘krokos’.
In Greek mythology, Krokos was a mortal man who fell in love with a beautiful shepherdess, who was actually a dryad; a nymph. Her name was Smilax. When the gods forbid them to marry, Krocos died of sadness and was transformed into the flower bearing his name; the crocus.
But the spring crocus that we enjoy isn’t the ‘krokos’ of ancient Greece. There’s another crocus; a sister to the spring varieties that we take such delight in. And it’s the most important species of the genus.
Crocus sativus, which blooms in the fall, is commonly called the saffron crocus. It’s the source of perhaps the rarest and certainly the most expensive spice in the world; saffron. A 0.06 oz. jar of McCormick Gourmet All Natural Spanish Saffron will cost you more than $18.00 at Walmart.
With its distinctive aroma, flavor, and color, saffron, has been used in cooking, medicine, cosmetics,
Saffron is actually the stamens of Crocus sativus. And, since there are only three stamens per crocus flower, it takes on the order of 150 to 200 flowers to produce just one gram of spice. The process is both labor-intensive and time consuming. The stamens can only be harvested by hand. And this is usually done while the flowers are closed.
While only one crocus species produces saffron, all crocus species are similar in appearance. And they all share the name.
Photo at top: Crocus. Photo Credit: Clemson University Culturally Responsive Computer Science (CRoCS – pronounced Crocus)