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Cheerful Little Harbinger of Spring
by Janet Davis
by Janet Davis


Janet Davis is a freelance garden writer and horticultural photographer whose stories and images have been featured in numerous publications. Magazines featuring her work include Canadian Gardening, Canadian Living, Gardening Life, President’s Choice Magazine, Chatelaine Gardens and, in the United States, Fine Gardening and Country Living Gardener.


April 22, 2007


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When you see those first sprightly crocus blossoms -- tiny chalices of mauve, blue, gold, purple and cream, sometimes even braving a late dusting of snow -- you can be sure that winter will soon be a distant memory. Not generally the first of spring’s blossoms (that distinction is a toss-up between snowdrops and winter aconites), they are nevertheless often up on a warm day in late March in southern Ontario, and are remarkably easy to grow.
Crocus flowers, sometimes striped, streaked or with contrasting coloured interiors, bloom before the grassy leaves emerge. They’re nice planted in groups under perennials, where their long, ripening leaves will be disguised by the perennials’ emerging foliage. Like all bulbs and corms, the leaves must be allowed to absorb sunshine and gradually wither so next year’s corm forming underground receives sufficient nourishment.
If you’ve been to Ottawa’s Parliament Hill in early spring, you may have seen how lovely crocuses look naturalized in lawns, their little flowers like confetti amidst the greening turf. Species crocus are best to naturalize since they’ve generally ripened enough by the time the lawn needs its first mowing.
The word “crocus” is one of the oldest plant names, deriving from the Greek word krokos, which means “saffron”. Those very expensive little red-gold threads of saffron you see in the spice section of the supermarket are actually the stigmas of the Mediterranean saffron crocus Crocus sativus (alas, a touch too tender for our Canadian climate).
Although we refer to the crocus as a bulb, like the gladiolus it is actually a corm which is a swollen underground stem containing stored food. Unlike true bulbs, there is no scaly cover and no rings are visible when a corm is cut in two. After flowering in spring, the old corm shrivels up and a new corm emerges on top of the old one. Crocuses multiply by forming small cormels around the basal roots; these reach flowering size in 2-3 years.
Spring-flowering crocuses (there are some that bloom in fall too) can be divided into two groups. First are the small, extremely hardy, early-blooming species like golden C. ancyrensis from Turkey, pale lilac C. sieberi, the robust and free-blooming cultivars of C. tommasinianus like ‘Barr’s Purple’ and ‘Ruby Giant’ (my favourites, especially when intermingled) and the many interspecific hybrids grouped under C. chrysanthus with names like ‘Blue Pearl’, ‘E.P. Bowles’, ‘Ladykiller’, ‘Zwanenburg Bronze’ and ‘Snow Bunting’.
Blooming about a week later are the familiar, large-flowered Dutch hybrids grouped together as C. vernus—white ‘Joan of Arc’, striped ‘Pickwick’, ‘Flower Record’, ‘Queen of the Blues’, ‘Yellow Mammoth’ (introduced in 1765) and so on.
Crocuses are a cinch to grow, with one tiny caveat: you must be prepared to outsmart crocus-loving squirrels, mice and chipmunks. I’ve found that in the garden, tamping down the soil well after planting and then placing a blanket of damp shredded leaves seems to do the trick. Grass is another matter. One autumn, within 48 hours of planting hundreds of species crocuses by cutting into the turf and then stamping it down, my lawn looked like the far side of the moon—filled with deep craters and not a crocus bulb in sight. Little baskets made of flexible chicken wire would have worked, but I’ve never been that energetic when it comes to outwitting rodents.
Plant crocus bulbs in autumn, placing the pointed end up about 3 inches (7 centimetres) deep and about 2 inches (5 centimetres) apart in well-drained soil in sun or light shade. For an indoor winter display, bulbs can be forced in a very cool, dark room for 10-12 weeks, starting in very late fall. Or in spring, budded crocuses planted outdoors can be lifted carefully, roots and all, and placed in pots inside, then replanted in the garden when they’ve finished blooming.
For a romantic spring colour scheme, I love using masses of the rich violet crocus C. tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’ with the rich blues of Scilla siberica and blue cultivars of Iris reticulata, such as ‘Cantab’ or ‘Harmony’.

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