Crocus

Crocus are one of the first plants to appear in the spring, sometimes popping up through the snow. The leaves and flowers have a waxy covering called a cuticle that protects them from snow or frost. Bright colors, drought tolerance and early blooming make them popular garden flowers. In my yard they seem to appear suddenly, a sign that winter may soon be over.

Crocus belong to the family Iridaceae and the genus Crocus. There are 80 species, but only about 30 of them are cultivated. The rest grow wild in woodlands, brush and meadows.  Native to Europe and parts of Asia, Crocus were cultivated as early as the 1560’s. A perennial flowering plant, their flowers come in a wide variety of colors with lilac, lavender, yellow and white being the most common. Bi- and tri-color blooms are also quite abundant. Full grown, Crocus are only 2-6 inches tall and wide. Leaves are grass-like and often have a thin white stripe.

Though they are sometimes classified as bulbs, Crocus grow from corms. Corms are a fleshy, compressed stem that stores the energy the plant needs to grow and bloom. Corms are planted just as a bulb would be. As the plant grows and blooms, a new corm is formed and the old one is used up. If your Crocus get too dense, they can be divided after the foliage turns brown.

Crocus can be planted in any sunny spot with well drained soil, and are often recommended for naturalizing. Basically, that is planting large numbers of bulbs (or corms) in such a way that it looks as if they grew there naturally. Over time, they will increase in number. You can naturalize Crocus in your lawn, among the grass, if you like. Just remember to look for a species that spreads freely. Another item to keep in mind is that you must let the foliage die down before mowing the grass in the spring. The plant needs that time, as much as 6 weeks, to store energy for next year.

Crocus grow best in zones 5-7 and will not grow at all in areas that are too hot because they need a period of cold in order to grow properly.  Plant spring blooming Crocus in the fall, and fall blooming types in the spring. Fall crocus? Yes, not all Crocus are early spring bloomers, some flower in the fall. Insects and diseases don’t really bother Crocus, but squirrels and mice do. To keep squirrels from snacking on your corms, lay chicken wire on top. The flowers will grow right through. You can also bury the corms in wire cages to keep them safe.

There are a couple flowers called Crocus that are not related, not even distant cousins. One is Pasque Flower, which is also known as Prairie Crocus. Though it looks similar, it belongs to a completely different family, Ranunculaceae. Another is Colchicum, or Autumn Crocus, which truly does bloom in the fall, but is not really a crocus, as it is part of the Liliaceae family.

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, by weight. It is made from Crocus sativus, a fall blooming crocus. It takes thousands of Crocus flowers to make 1 ounce of saffron, which is used as a seasoning and a coloring. The name Crocus is thought to be derived from a word that means yellow, or saffron yellow.

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