Chilean Blue Crocus

Hunger, greed, lust, extinction —it sounds like Edgar Allan Poe’s lurid tale The Fall of the House of Usher, but in fact it’s the story of the Chilean blue crocus. How did one small plant find itself at the center of such a turbulent drama? Easy—by being both very beautiful and very rare. By any reckoning, the Chilean blue crocus bears some of the most ravishing flowers in the entire plant kingdom: two-inch chalices of a blue that out-dazzles the most sapphirine gentian, delphinium, or Himalayan poppy, (For the record, it’s not a crocus, despite its specific epithet; it belongs to its own small family, the Tecophilaeaceae.) Restricted to only two sites on the grassy slopes of the hills surrounding the city of Santiago, at an altitude of about 9,700 feet, it wasn’t even discovered until 1862. And less than a hundred years later it was considered extinct in the wild. The culprits were hungry sheep, goats, and cattle, which found it a tasty snack; greedy bulb merchants, who paid the local ranchers to dig it up by the sackful; and, it must be acknowledged, lust-besotted gardeners, who were willing to pay the greedy bulb merchants extravagant sums for the pea-size corms.

Fortunately, the story didn’t end in complete tragedy, for the plant, like our native franklinia, has been maintained in cultivation in fairly healthy numbers. There is even a plan afoot, drafted by the Royal Botanical Society/Kew and Chile’s Corporacon Nacional Forestal, to reintroduce the plant into its former range. In the meantime, however, it’s up to gardeners to keep this beauty going. It’s not difficult. Because Chilean blue crocus requires a mild, Mediterranean climate (and because the corms are still staggeringly expensive; ounce for ounce they cost about 15 times more than gold) pot culture is best. A four- or five-inch pot, filled with a mix of two-thirds acidic loam to one-third grit or sharp sand, will easily accommodate a trio of corms, which should be planted two inches deep as soon as you receive them. While the plant is dormant, from late spring through midwinter, keep the corms dry and in a cool but frost-free place. When growth commences in midwinter, bring the pot into full sun and begin regular watering and feeding. A mature, well-grown plant will produce two or even three flowering stems, and when the flowers appear, you will be filled with a rapture that only gardeners get to experience. If you want to amass a complete collection of the species, you can add the cultivars ‘Leichtlinii’, whose perianth segments are white with blue edges, or the deep violet ‘Violacea’.

So get cracking. Buy some corms (or give some to your favorite gardener—a more princely gift is hard to imagine). Grow the plant and propagate it. We have a species to save here.

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