If I were to ask you to think about bulbs, what would come to mind? Tulips and daffodils most likely. But, what if I were to ask you to name a bulb that blooms in the fall? You might tell me there isn't any that exists. Surprisingly there is one.
Colchicum is a genus of flowering plants native to West Asia, Europe, the United Kingdom, and the Mediterranean coast that contains around 60 different species of perennial flowers that grow from corms. And the best known species, colchicum autumnale or autumn crocus, blooms in the fall. Flowers, which closely resemble the true crocus, can be seen in pink, white, and purple.
Unlike most plants, only the flower emerges in the fall. The leaves emerge each spring. The heat of the summer causes the plant to go dormant. So, when the flower emerges each spring, no leaves are present.
Another rare trait of the colchicum is the ovary of the flower is underground. As a consequence, the styles are extremely long in proportion to the rest of the flower. The styles can reach lengths of 4 inches.
All parts of the plant are poisonous since they contain alkaloid colchicines. A famous murderess of the 19th century, Catherine Wilson, is thought to have used its poison to kill a number of her victims. Despite its toxicity, the plant's roots and seeds have medicinal properties. Drugs derived from small doses of colchicum are used to treat gout.
Colchicum corms are planted in August in a garden that is well drained. Corms are planted about 2 inches deep and about 7 inches apart. After planting, caring for these autumn crosus is simple. The most important to remember is not to cut the spring leaves back as they store energy for the fall flowers. Most garden centers do not carry colchicum bulbs since they sprout readily and need to be planted in a timely manner after being harvested. Therefore mail order is one of the only ways to buy colchicum.
Anne Lenox Barlow has had experience in the agricultural field as a horticulture educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.