Tag Archives: colchicum autumnale

Of naked ladies, autumn crocus and so-called autumn crocus.

Just for the record, and in light of finding myself in print with some incorrect information which I didn’t actually write, I offer the following clarification.

The true autumn crocus is indeed a crocus

The true autumn crocus is indeed a crocus

The true autumn flowering crocus is in fact a crocus. There are many different species in the genus of crocus, some flowering in spring and some in autumn. Generally, crocus flower around the same time their foliage appears. We don’t have a species name on this pretty autumn crocus in our garden. Trace the botany of crocus back and they are part of the subfamily of Crocoideae, the family of Iridaceae and the order of Asparagales.

Colchicum autumnale

Colchicum autumnale

Colchicum autumnale flower about the same time for us, but the flowers appear a long time before the foliage so they are sometimes called naked ladies. Equally, they are sometimes referred to as autumn crocus but they are not. Again it is a big genus with many different species but they come from the family of Colchicaceae and the order of Liliales.

Sternbergia are not autumn crocus either (Photo credit: Meneerke bloem)

Sternbergia are not autumn crocus either (Photo credit: Meneerke bloem)

Sternbergia are sometimes referred to as autumn crocus but they are no more autumn crocus than colchicums. In fact they are more closely related to narcissi than crocus (a fact I discovered from the Pacific Bulb Society) and they are closely related to amaryllis. However, they flower with their foliage and their blooms, generally yellow, resemble a crocus in form. We have sternbergia in the garden here but they don’t flower overly well for us, possibly because they are essentially a Mediterranean plant which likes a hot, dry summer.

Amaryllis belladonna - the other naked ladies and closely related to sternbergia

Amaryllis belladonna – the other naked ladies and closely related to sternbergia

Also widely referred to as naked ladies are Amaryllis belladonna or the belladonna lilies that are mostly seen as roadside plants here. The genus is amaryllis, the species is belladonna (and there is only one other species in that genus) but the sub family (Amaryllidoideae) and then family (Amaryllidaceae) are the same as sternbergia. Trace them back another step on the Linnaeus chart and you find they are from the order of Asparagales which is where they meet the family tree of crocus – quite a long way back, botanically.

The bottom line is that the true autumn crocus is indeed a crocus, though it may be one of many different species.

Amaryllis belladonna (or naked ladies) are usually seen as a roadside flower

Amaryllis belladonna (or naked ladies) are usually seen as a roadside flower

Flowering this week: Colchicum autumnale

Autumn flowering colchicum, robust growing bulbs suitable for the garden or naturalising

Now that the temperatures have dropped noticeably and I am reconciled to the thought that summer has been and gone for another year, I am prepared to welcome the sight of the colchicums in flower. These are often called the autumn crocus because their simple six petalled cup-like flowers resemble those bulbs but they are distant relatives at best. They have their very own botanical family which is colchicaceae. Their flowers are considerably larger than most crocus and they flower well before their foliage appears. Because they have very large bulbs and grow quite vigorously, they are not shy delicate little things you will lose in a garden situation. In fact they can be naturalised in grass. The flowers are more lilac than pink and are hardly long lived but you can get a succession of them from a single bulb. When the leaves appear, they are relatively large, lush and green but the downside is that the foliage hangs on for a long time into early summer by which point it no longer looks attractive at all. Autumnale is native to quite large areas of Europe.

Colchicums are the source of colchicine, a controlled pharmaceutical of considerably potency used in cancer treatments and also to cause mutations in living cells, which is sometimes advantageous but does need to be handled with care. These bulbs are also the true Naked Ladies though we more commonly refer to belladonnas as bearing this politically incorrect epithet.