These late-blooming bulbs create brilliant swathes of autumn color
BY JOE ECK
PHOTOGRAPHY BY WEBB CHAPPELL
AUTUMN CAN BE A MELANCHOLY SEASON. What was so eagerly anticipated a mere six months before—the first snowdrops, hosts of daffodils, a garden drenched with the scent of roses, the first fresh peas—passes so quickly. What lies ahead are shorter days, cold winds, snow and ice, a world bereft of color. Winter takes a little preparation, a little easing into. Happy fact, then, that among the last flowers the garden will bear a few seem almost to be the first flowers of spring. Among the loveliest of these latecomers are the colchicums, which improbably grace the autumn garden with their presence, studding bare ground with chalices of vibrant lilac magenta, just the color that looks best with tawny autumn leaves.
That colchicums are unfamiliar to so many gardeners is a puzzle, for the genus is rich in virtues. First of all, most thrive under a wide range of cultural conditions, from the severe winter cold of USDA Zone 4 to the torrid summer heat of Zone 9. Possessing natural repellents, they are free of diseases, insect pests, and predators, including deer and rabbits. Most are completely unparticular about soil quality, accepting stony gravel and humus-rich loam with equal willingness, asking only perfect drainage. Though single corms can be breathtakingly costly, up to $12 apiece, getting from one to the wealth of a bedful takes little time or effort, as colchicums are among the most prolific of bulbs (loosely termed) and are exceptionally easy to divide.
The genus Colchicum includes approximately 45 species native principally to stony hillsides around the Mediterranean, but extending well into northern India and even western China. (The genus name is classical, taken from Colchis, the ancient Roman name for the Black Sea region of Georgia.) In their native habitats, one species or another will be in flower from August to April. Still, the bulk of the genus—and certainly the showiest and easiest to grow—flower from mid-September to early October. In color, they are all a play on shades of lilac mauve, some deepening almost to magenta, others washing out to pinkish gray. There are a few doubles (about which more later) and a sprinkling of precious albino whites. But the truth is that there is no such thing as an ugly colchicum.
THE BASIC SPECIES
In my southern Vermont garden, the first colchicum to appear is C. agrippinum, showing its first flower just as the bulk of the tomatoes ripen and the August drought gives way to light September rains. To say that it is lilac magenta, like most colchicums, is quite to miss the point. For close observation will show that each flower is checkered over, the deeper mauve ground hashed with lighter lines. Botanists call this pattern tessellation, and it is most familiar to gardeners on the petals of the snake’s-head fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris. Do not, however, expect too much precision in this design. For if dishevelment is part of the charm of autumn, it is certainly part of the charm of colchicums, and C. agrippinum possesses that to a rather large degree. Its six or so pointed petals (“perianth segments” is the correct botanical term) stand about four inches tall, when they don’t flop over, and the pattern is often blurred to dots. Still, it is beautiful. And the first.
On the heels of C. agrippinum, if not even before it, is C. byzantinum. A much more vigorous and much more floriferous species, it can produce as many as two dozen blooms from a single corm, each standing five or so inches tall, and each making way for the next by falling over on its side. The texture of the petals is rather watery, and so the effect of a corm in bloom is of a puddle of soft pinkish lilac. Dishevelment again, but suitable to the season. A very fine white form (C. byzantinum ‘Album’) also exists that is equally vigorous, and manages somehow to be a little more upstanding.
Sometime in early October, just as the forest turns to its full autumn splendor, C. speciosum comes into bloom. It is perhaps the jewel of the genus. For one thing, it bears the largest flowers of all, chalices standing up to seven inches tall, with oval, rounded, overlapping petals clasping yellow anthers. Buds emerge a surprising pale ivory, but quickly color up to a rich, pinkish purple. And though flowers are not borne in the profusion of C byzantinum, each corm usually producing only three or four blooms, their size and the intensity of their color more than make up the difference. Surprisingly, this colchicum is fragrant, though E. A. Bowles, who lovingly chronicled the genus, found in its scent an underlying smell “like that of a stable.”
No flower is perfect. But as close to perfection as one can get is the white form of C. speciosum, C. s. ‘Album,’ which is the pearl of the genus and possibly the most beautiful of all white-flowered autumn perennials. For “album” in this case first means pristine white, and then in a beautiful cup of six petals held perfectly upright, no matter what insults autumn storms may deal. This might be the colchicum above all others to plant, were they not all so wonderful in different ways.
The last of the commonly cultivated colchicums to bloom is C. autumnale. Though it usually brings up the end of the parade just as autumn leaves fall, it sometimes gets out of step and overlaps its cousins. It is a neat plant, producing six or so blossoms about five inches tall, all at once from each corm, a tight little bouquet. Though other colchicums show off best on bare ground in bays of shrubbery or the sunny edges of woodland verges, C. autumnale always looks best in rough grass, as its popular name, “meadow saffron,” indicates. There is a very fine white form of C. autumnale, ‘Album’ again, which can look extraordinarily fine planted in Vinca minor, the common myrtle.
Beyond the species colchicums, or those we for convenience call species, are many wonderful hybrids, a Pandora’s box of them, which the avid collector may open at his peril. Three hybrids are commonly offered, however, and always at the inevitable initial price, though all three will be as quick of increase as any other colchicum. They are ‘Lilac Wonder’. ‘The Giant’, and ‘Waterlily’.
Let’s start with ‘Lilac Wonder’, whose name alone recommends it to gardeners. No one knows its parentage for certain, though the robust nature of C. speciosum is apparent. A single corm will produce as many as 12 goblet-shaped flowers, each of a deep violet pink. The first stand upright as long as they can, and then tumble sideways, still pretty, to give way to the last. It is as prolific of increase as of bloom, so waves can be built up quickly, and with reasonable diligence, the whole garden might soon be full. ‘The Giant’ is equally prolific, and for all the impressiveness of its name, might be said to be wonderfully nice, but in comparison to ‘Lilac Wonder’ not all that nice. It is a very good plant, robust of constitution, with a succession of as many as six goblet-shaped flowers produced from each corm, each standing about seven inches tall. Plant it near ‘Lilac Wonder’ and judge for yourself.
Now we must turn to double colchicums, of which there are several. ‘Waterlily’ may be the flagship, with many pointed petals of lilac pink, tightly bunched against the ground. But there are two other doubles, both in the autumnale group, C. a. ‘Plenifolium,’ and C. a. ‘Alboplenum.’ The first is also pale lilac pink, and the second, white. All three emerge quite late, almost at the very end of the colchicum season. Because the essential form of a colchicum flower is so elegant in the ideal, they can all look rather odd, like penwipers, and it must be said that their numerous petals seem to attract the splashed mud of autumn rains. For this reason, they should all be grown far away from their slim relatives, in rock garden situations, surrounded by gravel mulch, where their eccentricity of form, quite beautiful in its way, will be both showcased and unsullied.
There are gardeners—and I am unabashedly among them—for whom the knowledge of a genus of mostly hardy plants of easy cultivation and aristocratic demeanor, with subtle permutations from species to species, creates an insatiable appetite. Fortunately, among colchicums, there will be no stopping anyone of us, for more rare species and hybrids appear each year on the more adventurous bulb lists. There are dainty colchicums like C. baytopiorum, whose flowers are half the size of those of C. autumnale, and would be wonderfully suitable hovering against a granite stepping stone. There are even colchicums that flower in spring, C. hungaricum being perhaps the easiest, producing up to eight goblet-shaped pale, pinkish mauve, three-inch-tall blooms per corm. A rare white form of it also exists.
But perhaps the rarest and most difficult of the spring colchicums is the only yellow-flowered species in an otherwise mostly lavender, mauve, lilac, and purple genus. That is C. luteum, a native of northern India into Tibet. Though said to be abundant in its native lands, and hardy to Zone 4, it is very rare in commerce, perhaps the rarest in the trade. It is said, for some reason, to be suitable only for the cold alpine house. There are some of us who might build one, just to have it. H
For sources of colchicums, turn to page 76.