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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Crocus: The harbinger of spring

Crocus growing in the grass too!
Ah, the wondrous Crocus! The harbinger of spring. The first flower to come poking out through the melting snow. The one true sign that winter is on its way out. No, it’s appearance doesn’t signal the time to put away winter coats, but it does give one hope and after a long and dreary hibernation the Crocus is indeed a welcome sight.

Crocus vernus, the common Dutch Crocus (Did I say common? How dare I! ) Is the most widely available, most often planted and the most vigorous of its kind. They come in dark purple, bright yellow, sparkling white and  lavender. These beauties are usually planted en mass, look darling in rock gardens and though they stand barely three inches tall they hold their own even from a distance. The Crocus has narrow grass-like leaves with a silvery or white streak down the middle.

Even among the winter litter they sparkle
While the Crocus may pale in comparison to the stately Tulip and the jolly Daffodil it still has me by the heart strings. It blooms without fail, multiplies readily and always cheers me up. I get the winter blues something awful but seeing the first Crocus tells me it’s time to start seeds indoors, in cold frames and in the greenhouse. Yes, the Crocus brings with it the new growing season. What could be better than that?

The Giant Crocus, reaching a whopping  six inches tall has a larger, showier cup-shaped flower. They come in the same colors as the C. Vernus, with the same bright yellow to orange centers plus the addition of cream, gold, pale violet and some enchanting two-tone varieties. All are hardy in most places but they do best in colder climates. In the sub-tropics and warmer areas it is necessary to refrigerate the corms in ensure blooming. These are readily potted and forced for indoor blooming just like other spring bloomers.
Multiplying like crazy

They do best in full sun but as they bloom so early they can easily be planted under trees where they will get plenty of sun before the trees leaf out. Some folks like to naturalize Crocus in their lawns. Just lift up a section of turf and place the corms right under the sod. In the Spring the lawn will get a tiny splash of unexpected color. Generally, the corms should be planted five inches deep in well drained, rich soil. If you live in an area prone to squirrel traffic it is advisable to place a chicken wire barrier over the planting area holding the edges down with U-pins. It’s not foolproof but it might discourage the little buggers.

As if I needed to say anything else in praise of  the Crocus there are some varieties that bloom in the Autumn and one in particular that provides the gourmet cooks among us the coveted saffron. Crocus Sativus, aka the Saffron Crocus,  has a lilac-colored flower with the bright orange to red stigma which is the true saffron used in dishes like paella and as a coloring for yellow rice. All you have to do is pluck the stigma as soon as it blooms, dry them and store in air-tight jars. And you thought the Crocus was just eye candy!

One thing to remember about the Crocus and all other spring blooming bulbs, the foliage needs to dry naturally to ensure it gets enough energy from the sun to multiply and replenish its store for more blooms the following year. I plant these among perennials to hide the drying leaves. Fall is the time to plant spring bloomers but right after they flower is the time for a little fertilizer in the way of bone meal, compost or  any liquid stuff you find readily available. Keeping them healthy will ensure more vigorous growth and more blooming power for the next spring. No matter what variety you choose I know you will adore the cheery Crocus as much as I do.

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