While its colorful beauty is enough to keep even the most sour kitty happy, a crocus poking its brightly colored head through the snow has been known to inspire frenzy of joy in those constantly plagued by winter.
Many gardeners take the appearance of crocuses as the first sign that spring is just a nanosecond away. And what makes a gardener happier than spring after a long, cool season of leafless shrubs and bare trees?
Let’s find out more about this beautiful genus of plants that provide a welcome splash of color in spring.
What are crocus flowers?
Crocus is a genus of 90 closely related species of bulbous perennial plants belonging to the iris family that grow from bulbs. Although they are known for their spring blooms, select species bloom in the fall or winter. They are native to North Africa and the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean (particularly the islands of the Aegean), and extend to Central Asia and western China.
Their native habitat is quite diverse and includes meadows, scrub and forests. Most species are fairly dainty, growing four to six inches tall.
Saffron, a spice widely used in Spanish cuisine, is made from the stigmas of the fall-blooming species C. sativus. This expensive and highly sought-after cooking ingredient is traditionally used in risottos, pilafs and paellas.
cultivation and history
Crocus sativus was first cultivated for saffron in the eastern Mediterranean and first appears in the historical record with the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete.
The Holy Roman Ambassador to Constantinople first introduced the plant to Western Europe when he brought tubers back to the Netherlands, where they became popular for ornamental gardens. At the beginning of the 16th century new fancy varieties were developed which are strikingly similar to the varieties still cultivated.
Crocus flowers can be propagated in two different ways and both require digging up the root structure.
The roots should be dug up and divided after the first frost in fall, after the bulbous tubers have fallen asleep.
The primary method of propagation is to dig down to the roots and separate the tubers into bulb offsets. These offsets are new buds that develop around the base of the mother bulb. Once you’ve dug up the root structure, you can separate the offsets and use them to expand existing beds or create new ones.
To minimize overcrowding, plants should be dug up and thinned out at least every five years.
Crocus plants produce small seed bulbs called bulbils that develop along the root structure.
How do I grow
Plant tubers in well-drained, compost-rich soil in full sun or partial shade.
Dig holes three to four inches deep and place the tubers tip-up. Water well immediately after planting.
In USDA hardiness zones 3-8, plant newly purchased spring flowering crocuses six to eight weeks before the expected first hard frost and when the soil temperature is below 60°F. Generally this would mean September to October in the north and October to November in the south. If you dug your own, you can plant after the frost.
Gardeners in warmer zones will want to “chill” the tubers at 35°F to 45°F for 12 to 14 weeks, so place them in the niches of the refrigerator in October and plant as soon as they come out of the cold.
Fall blooming crocuses are hardy in zones 6-10. Gardeners in colder climates can dig up the bulbs after the blooms are consumed and replant the following fall.
Plant autumn flowering bulbs in August – you will see blooms in 6 to 10 weeks.