With a little thought, seasons can be defined by colors with each season marked by the predominance of one or two flower colors. To me, late winter conjures up images of white and yellow flowers, with scant few options for purple blooms until April. This color void initiated my interest for the rosy-purple March flowers of Spring Meadow Saffron or Colchicum bulbocodium!
Colchicum bulbocodium was initially considered to be a member of the lily family, but has since been reclassified into its own family of Colchicaceae! This species is native to alpine meadows from the Pyrenees Mountains of France and Spain East to the Caucasus. The flowers and foliage appear, mature and vanish over a 3 month period in spring, with the remaining 9 months spent quiescent as an underground ‘stem’ called a corm. A corm is a modified stem as opposed to a true bulb like an Onion, which consists of modified leaves.
The genus name actually stems from its geographic domain. Colchis was an ancient civilization along the Black Sea that existed from the 13th to the 1st century BC – a region that is currently part of present-day Georgia. Since it was a region rich in various species of this plant, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) thought it only fitting to name it after this ancient civilization. Colchicum is also poisonous due to high concentrations of colchicine that prevents cell meiosis. By coincidence in Greek mythology, Colchis was also the home of the sorceress Medea, who was known for her deadly potions!
Once again, this is one of those plants that is plagued by the confusion of a name change, and not even a recent name change at that! Although Linnaeus penned and described the genus name of Colchicum, he originally named this plant Bulbocodium vernum. The genus and current species name comes from the Greek bulbos or bulb and kodian meaning wool, referring to the pubescence of the papery outer layer to the corm. The species epithet of vernum refers to the time of bloom – the vernal equinox. In 1807, the English botanist John Bellenden Ker Gawler (1764-1842) properly reclassified the plant as Colchicum bulbocodium. Interestingly, nearly 200 years later, I learned the plant as Bulbocodium vernum! Change can be so difficult. The difficulty in identifying the genus was due to the floral style. In this case, style does not refer to fashion, but to the stem that connects the stigma to the ovary. The stigma is the sticky surface at the tip of the style that receives the pollen. The pollen then passes down through the style as enzymes carve passageways or pollen tubes that lead to the ovary and ultimately fertilization and seed production. Most Colchicum species bloom in the fall, necessitating the ovary to be located in the warmer regions below ground, which allows the seeds to develop throughout the winter. The distance between the stigma and the below ground ovary necessitates an unusually long style, often 3-4” in length. As previously mentioned, the confusion over the genus name resulted from the design of the style. Each Colchicum flower has a three chambered ovary, with a style leading to each chamber. In most species of Colchicum, the style splits into 3 ‘strands’ near the ovary. In this species, the style is split at the tip, but fuses into one strand with 3 individual pathways leading to the ovary.
Despite the confusion over how the design of the style impacts the name, this is one stupendous plant for the Garden. Unlike many of the later blooming large-flowered Crocus, the flowers of Spring Meadow Saffron are not impacted by cold weather. I have seen the flowers totally encased in ice following a night of freezing rain, only to bloom beautifully in the days to come. That would not be true of the Crocus! The flowers also present themselves beautifully. Initially, a rosette of 4, dark purple leaves emerge from the soil, through which an erect rosy-purple bud appears (as seen in the image above on the left with snow in the background). Within several days, the 2-3” diameter, 5-petalled flowers open and remain impactful for close to two weeks (pictured above). The ensuing foliage is clean and attractive (pictured at left), going dormant by early June. Plants prefer full sun and flourish in an organic soil that retains moisture throughout the winter with periods of summer drought, much like an alpine meadow. Colchicum bulbocodium does not self-sow aggressively; in fact, after 25 years, a planting of 40 bulbs has only a few seedlings to show for its years of flowering!
Spring Meadow Saffron provides a weather resistant splash of purple that helps to nicely transition the garden of late winter into that of spring. Widely available in many bulb catalogues, it is certainly a very garden worthy and long lived plant to purchase and plant this fall!