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Colchicums
by Liz Primeau
by Liz Primeau



Liz Primeau's second edition of Gardening for Canadians for Dummies, updated and with a new chapter on using art in your garden, plus a design and garden-care workbook section, will be released in January, 2002.

She is at present writing a new book on front-yard gardens, to be published by Firefly Books in spring, 2003.

Liz is the the founding editor of the Canadian Gardening magazine.


September 9, 2007

My first colchicum was given to me late one summer eons ago by my Uncle Ren, my gardening mentor, now departed from this earth but whose spirit lives on in my garden. He called it an autumn crocus, and I thought it had a serious personality disorder, blooming, leafless, for a good two weeks that first fall, and the next spring throwing up a huge tuft of flowerless leaves like a shiny romaine lettuce, which then died back like the foliage of all the other spring bulbs. 
But my colchicum was beautiful to behold, with a cluster of glistening, urn-shape double blooms in a rosy mauve that glowed in the golden autumn sun. One day I found it listed in one of Ren's mail-order catalogues and discovered it was called 'Waterlily'; it cost $10 and it wasn't a crocus at all but a member of the lily family. (It's also commonly called naked-lady, for its habit of blooming without the protection of leaves, and it shouldn't be confused with the true autumn crocus, which also blooms in rosy mauves. The stamens of one autumn crocus, C. sativus, are dried to make saffron.) 
So every summer when I had an extra $10 I'd order another colchicum, trying other varieties: Colchicum autumnale alboplenum, for example, a double white that cost about a third more than 'Waterlily' and bloomed earlier. C. speciosum 'Lilac Wonder' I grew to like even more than 'Waterlily' because of its deeper, almost amethyst, blooms and the way it rapidly naturalized into a clump in a few years. Visitors to my garden would always marvel at these odd but beautiful "crocuses", and today, years later and in a different garden, they still do. I've never understood why more people don't grow them. 
The colchicum is native to the Mediterranean and parts of Asia, and most are perfectly hardy to Zone 3, others (like 'Waterlily') to Zone 5. Sometimes they're advertised as the bulb that will bloom on a windowsill without soil or water, a novelty idea that sounds more like a Grade 6 science experiment than gardening to me. It also has scientific value: colchicums are the source of colchicine, a poisonous powder used in plant breeding to change the chromosome structure of plants and develop larger flowers or new varieties. 
The corms should be planted six to nine inches (15 to 23 cm) apart and about four inches (10 cm) deep in mid August, although I confess I've left planting till mid-September and the eight- to 10-inch (20- 25 cm) flowers have come up fine. I've also planted colchicums singly (they're still pretty pricey) and they make a good show. I don't fertilize them or give them any extra care, and they come back year after year in ever larger clumps. While they're dormant I've dug them up and separated them, starting new clumps.
I like them best scattered through the garden among the creeping thyme and other low-growing semi-evergreen perennials. Their rosy-mauve blooms look particularly appealing among the grey-green leaves of donkey tail euphorbia. Brian Bixley, a gardener who lives in the Mulmur Hills, near Caledon, Ontario, grows colchicums in a large bed among perennial geraniums. After the geraniums flower and the colchicum foliage has died back, Brian ruthlessly mows the whole bed down. The geraniums regrow into low, feathery foliage just in time to mound around the naked colchicum blooms. 
If the colchicum has a fault, it's that dratted foliage. Sure it's handsome enough while it's green and glossy in the spring, but it's not exactly a garden feature as it fades through yellow to brown. Do like Brian Bixley does and plant the corms where other plants will conceal its fatal flaw, then think ahead to fall. 

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