Colchicums – Springtime Blooms in Autumn

Colchicums – Springtime Blooms in Autumn
By the end of the summer, I quickly tire of watching my perennials begin to die back for the winter. My shrubs are pretty much finished with their summer show, and even my wildflowers have only a few Black-eyed Susans left blooming. There is a way, however, to have another source of blooms from fall-blooming bulbs. My favorite of these is the colchicum, an outstanding addition to late-season gardens.

Colchicums – Colchicaceae (from the Liliaceae family) – are also called Autumn Crocus or Meadow Saffron, which is why they’re often confused with autumn-blooming crocus. They’re easy to tell apart if you look closely; colchicum has six stamens while crocus only has three. Grown from corms that can be up to 4” in diameter, their foliage appears in springtime and stays all summer long, only to die back just prior to bloom time. Many gardeners hate the look of the 12-15” yellowing-foliage so much that they prefer not to plant colchicums, but if you plant them among summer annuals or late season perennials they can be hidden nicely.

There are a couple of interesting facts about colchicums. All colchicums are extremely poisonous because they contain colchicine, an ingredient used in plant breeding to create mutations. This turns up to be a big plus for those gardeners plagued by deer and other pests which reject the plant instinctively. The use of colchicine is also used in the treatment of gout, and mention of its use as medicinal shows up in literature dating back to the 1500s. This makes these flowers true “heirlooms.”

Some of the more common species of this interesting flower include:

Colchicum Autumnale Album – A white flowering form that resembles tulips more than crocus. 'Alboplenum' is the double-flowering white form. Autumnale 'Pleniflorum' is a rosy, double-flowering variety.

Colchicum “The Giant”- One of the tallest (10-12” tall) varieties has pale violet flowers that are white at the base. The Giant may have up to six flowers per corm.

Colchicum Waterlily – A double-flowering variety with pinkish-purple chalice shaped cups, it lasts up to ten days in water and so is excellent as a cut flower. This colchicum resembles – you guessed it – a waterlily, and sometimes its flowers are too heavy for their stems to support.

Colchicum ‘Lilac Wonder’ – Lilac Wonder has large, pale violet flowers with white stripes in the center. It grows 8-10” tall.

Colchicum Cilicicum – This is one of the garden favorites because it produces up to 15 flowers per corm and it spreads prolifically. Its blooms are star-shaped and pinkish-purple.

If you want to give colchicums a try in your garden, order early since they often sell out very early. Plant colchicums as soon as you receive them in mid-September; otherwise, they may sprout while you’re storing them. Colchicums bloom quickly – usually in about three weeks. Pick a spot that will remain undisturbed to allow the corms to bloom year after year. Given enough space, they multiply rapidly. As with all bulbs, colchicums require well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade. They look best when planted en mass and are hardy to Zone 5. Divide them when they become crowded – usually every three years or so.

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