The lovely Crocus has been cultivated since very ancient times. Historical records show that they were grown in Palestine since the time of Solomon. The original Greek word for Crocus is “Krokos, meaning 'Saffron'” and was later Latinized to its present form. There are at least 90 species of this perennial corm of the Iris Family.
Most species are native to the Mediterranian region to South West Asia and the Middle East. There are another group of species found in Central and South Europe and more as far away as China.
Crocuses grow best in a sunny or partly shaded position. They are naturally found in woodlands, growing beneath scrub, in meadows and sometimes gritty and rocky places. They are found from sea level into high Alpine regions. They are cold-hardy enough to survive near tundra conditions but cannot tolerate sustained subtropical heat and humidity.The ideal climate for Crocus is one where they can experience a cold Winter followed by a cool, damp prolonged Spring season. Following that, they need to experience a dry, hot, long Summer where their corms can rest and go completely dormant. As the leaves wither, their sap energy returns to rejuvenate the corm and produce new ones that will flower the following season.
Once autumnal rains return, new roots begin to grow from the base of the new corm. Autumn flowering species soon burst into bloom and can continue throwing a few flowers into Early Spring. Most other Crocus species need a period of sustained cold Winter weather to further develop their root system. Then as soon as sunlight and warmth begin to increase in Late Winter and Early Spring their grassy shoots emerge and soon blooms pop out often quite suddenly. These are a beloved classic herald of Spring. After they finish blooming their grassy leaves with a distinctive white band up the center continue to grow and mature. Prolonged cool Spring weather is very beneficial then so that the leaves achieve their maximum length. Let the leaves mature naturally without damage. Then let them wither and die off before removing them. Once the leaves have withered the corm enters dormancy. Then scratch a bit of dirt into the hole where the leaves once were. This insures that the dormant corms are protected from predative insects while they rest.
New Zealand’s weather favours growing the Spring flowering species although Autumn flowering varieties are also available. These often perform best in more arid areas of the country. Crocus corms are planted from early Autumn onward into Early Winter. Plant the small disc-shaped corms 3-5cm deep and 7cm apart in the garden. If planted a little deeper in mild climates this helps keep the corms from splitting into many non-flowering smaller cormlets. In mild climates plant Crocus corms in cool, partly shades positions that are exposed to chilling drafts. This helps insure the cold ground temperatures that they need for proper flowering.
Crocus thrive in well draining soils that are light or even gritty or sandy. Their surrounding soil can be enriched with additional potassium or phosphorous but avoid heavy applications of nitrogen and all strong animal manures. Most species also do well in peaty woodland soil or loamy sites if they slope and drain well.They can be naturalized in lawns or mass planted beneath deciduous trees. They look wonderful nestled amongst rocks. In cold climates, if Crocus are planted in a warm, well drained spot angled into the Winter sun they will put up a brave show opening wide in the late Winter snow.
Crocus is an excellent subject to grow in containers. Choose something in terracotta or perhaps a decorative bowl with excellent drainage. Plastic pots work well, too, provided they drain very thoroughly. Corms are planted so that they almost touch and are set just below the soil surface. Because Crocus species are quite variable in form and height plus can bloom at different times, they usually look the most effective when one species or hybrid variety is planted all together rather than a mix. Once planted the container can either be set outdoors in a cool and shady place that doesn't freeze for at least 6-8 weeks. Or the pots can be buried in a pit of sand or covered with protective mulch. Then after the required number of weeks of cold, bring the pot(s) into more light and warmth for flowering. Alternatively, the container can be placed in refrigeration for 6-8 weeks but no more than 12 weeks. Once shoots begin to emerge and roots begin to appear out the drainage holes, the pot is ready to bring into a bright but cool room. Water sparingly but never let the pot dry out or get exposed to cold or hot drafts. Within a few weeks cup-like or star-like blooms will pop forth.
Once flowering finishes, let the foliage ripen completely to build up the corm's strength for next year's flowering. Liquid feeding can be quite beneficial at this time. Once the foliage withers completely, it can be removed. The container and its bulbs are usually placed in a cool, dry, dark environment to rest throughout the warmer months. Then in the Early Autumn, remove the bulbs from their pot; replace their soil and start the process again.
Flower colors favour purple, blue, mauve, white and golden yellow shades but hybrids exist in soft pastels and exotic stripes.Almost all Crocus feature either cup-shaped or almost star-shaped flowers that burst open from long, pointed buds that emerge stemless from the ground. The flowers are surrrounded by a number of somewhat stiff grassy leaves usually with a white stripe running down their center.
Crocus chrysanthus, a classic yellow orange species, and its related hybrids are amongst the earliest minor bulbs to flower in late Winter into early Spring. They make great companions along side Winter Aconite, Galanthus nivalis (Snowdrop), Chionodoxa luciliae (Glory-of- the-Snow) and Puschkinia scilloides (Striped Squill). Many more lovely species Crocus soon follow. Many of these species are famous for multiplying to make delicate clumps of pastel early Spring color. They are often planted so that they can naturalize in park lawns, perennial borders, rock and woodland gardens.
Soon to follow are the larger giant yellow Crocus flavus 'Mammoth' Then C. vernus with beautiful large blue, purple and white flowers; some cultivars are exquisitely veined like Pickwick with purple veining over white petals. 'Remembrance' is a lovely mid purple. 'Flower Record' and 'Negro Boy' are the richest deep purple with a vivid red stigma. 'Jean d' Arc' is purest white. These are amongst the most spectacular for container planting or feature clusters in the garden border or rockery.
These larger flowering Croci often bloom at about the same time as the earliest Muscari (Grape Hyacinth) and dwarf Narcissus as well as the earliest species Tulips. Sometimes they flower with Anemone blanda (Wind Anemone) which will continue flowering well after the Crocuses have finished. Consider planting at least a dozen of each species and variety in bold clumps to make a dramatic statement in the early Spring garden.
With the advent of Autumn start a new series of Crocus species with a similar flowering form. The most famous of these is the delicate Crocus sativus, the flower that produces the spice Saffron. It produces pretty star-shaped mauve purple blooms. Each bloom features a long fiery golden stigma that is harvested to produce the flavoured spice, saffron. It takes approximately 255,000 Saffron Crocus stigma to make a single pound of Saffron!
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