I was going to call this post ‘Naked Ladies’, but then decided that it would attract the wrong sort of reader. But this is in fact the common name for these beauties because the flowers appear without any foliage.
Colchicums are commonly mistaken for autumn crocuses (or should it be croci?) But there is a difference if you look at the flowers closely. Crocuses have three stamens and colchicums have six. Some people prefer crocuses because they are more delicate, but I love colchicums; they give the garden a much needed blast of colour in early autumn.
The first one to flower always gives me a shock by appearing in August. It is Colchicum autumnale which seems rather a misnomer, as by the autumn it has been and gone.
It is the only colchicum which is native to the UK and used to flourish in the west of the country, but I believe it is rare now. Gerard writes that it is good as a remedy for gout. He says it comes from the Isle of Colchis. In fact what was known as the ancient city of Colchis is in the Black Sea area of Georgia. If you remember your Greek mythology, you will recall that Colchis was the destination of Jason and the Argonauts in the quest for the Golden Fleece. Colchicums were said to have sprung up from drops of the poisonous potion brewed by Medea, the daughter of the King of Colchis. In fact she intended it as a love potion, but colchicums are very poisonous.
It would seem that Gerard’s gout remedy is pretty deadly. There have been several recorded accidental deaths by colchicum poisoning. Apparently, people have mistaken it for wild garlic. Incredibly stupid people they must have been too. In the nineteenth century, colchicum was used by a woman called Catherine Wilson as a poison. The symptoms resembled those of cholera, so in those days, so she had a chance of getting away with it. She was a nurse and persuaded people to change their wills making her the beneficiary and then she killed them with colchicine. She is suspected of murdering her first husband and several other people. She was hanged in 1862. So don’t snack on your colchicums.
The white form Colchicum autumnale ‘Album’ is a bit later and seems to last longer in my garden.
Much bigger and showier are the lovely Colchicum speciosum hybrids. The most coveted one, Colchicum speciosum ‘Album’ was bred in the late nineteenth century by Backhouse of York. E.A.Bowles tells us that when he first saw it, there were only three bulbs in existence and even years later they changed hands: ‘at a price only suitable for millionaires’. It is indeed a gorgeous bulb with huge goblets of glistening white.
Another of the Backhouse hybrids is a favourite of mine. It is Colchicum speciosum ‘Atrorubens’. I love the way that it is purple all down the stem.
I have clumps of colchicums scattered all round the garden and I have decided that unless you can afford hundreds of bulbs this is not a great way to display them because they just don’t have enough impact. I was at Beth Chatto’s garden recently and she has them threaded throughout the garden, particularly in the woodland garden. They looked lovely, but the cost of doing this would be prohibitive for most of us.
I also saw them growing in a special bed on a recent visit to East Ruston Vicarage garden. I love this garden and I have been meaning to write about about it for a while now, but I keep getting side-tracked. I will try to make it my next post. But I am not keen on this way of displaying colchicums in all their nudity. And I think the labels are intrusive.
Last week, I visited the wonderful garden of the bulb specialist, Rod Leeds who lives near me. He wrote the three books which are my bulb bibles. ‘Autumn Bulbs’, ‘The Plantfinder’s Guide to Early Bulbs’ and ‘Bulbs in Containers’. Not only does he have varieties of colchicums that I have never seen before, but the display in a bed alongside his drive made a big impact. It inspired me to write this post and to contemplate making an autumn bed of colchicums myself. I am not sure where yet; I can’t quite face digging up more lawn. But I am definitely going to dig up all my colchicums and place them in a bed together. As they are so naked when they flower, I loved the way Rod gave them frills of the parsley fresh Polypodium cambricum ‘Richard Kayse’.
I found a nursery on line which stocks this gorgeous fern and I bought it along with a Polypodium cambrian ‘Pulcherrimum Addison’ which is one Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Plants recommends.
The problem with colchicums is the fact that in spring, they have the most enormous leaves which can be a nuisance, and they don’t die back prettily. I might borrow some of Beth Chatto’s ideas for companion plants. The white spotted pulmonaria foliage is perfect with the gorgeous flowers of Colchicum speciosum ‘Album’
Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy’ can be invasive, but it too looks good with the white colchicum. The native fern Asplenium scolopendrium crops up all over my garden and how nice it looks in this group.
Whoops, this next one is a combination I will not be copying . Ground Elder is the bane of my life. I spend my life trying unsuccessfully to eradicate it. Even if this is the variegated form, it is not welcome in my garden. The double Colchicum ‘Water Lily’ is not one of my favourites. Almost as soon as it blooms it collapses untidily.
So what would I use? I already have plum-coloured heucheras planted with some of them and they look good together. The foliage of Alchemilla mollis sets them off well too, as long as you keep it neatly trimmed.
I may also plant a few autumn flowering Liriope muscari with them.
And in a sunny spot what about some lovely yellow Sternbergia lutea? Although I must admit that so far I have not had much success at getting them to bloom every year. These are in Rod’s garden.
I shall certainly borrow Rod’s idea of planting Cyclamen hederifolium along the front of the bed. I think this bed is going to be great fun to make and it will be a chance to acquire some different colchicums. By the way, if you want to move colchicums, the best time to do it is after the leaves die down and they have gone dormant.