Autumn crocus is worth planting if only to startle your neighbors. When they ask why your crocuses are blooming this time of year, just smile and say that perhaps spring has come early in your garden.
A bed of autumn crocus does more than just startle, of course; it also paints the fall landscape in soft swatches of lavender, pink or white blossoms.
Had you so desired, that paint job could have begun as far back as August. Not such a bad idea, because many flower gardens temporarily sulk in August, waiting to revive in the moist coolness of autumn.
First, the fake crocuses
Many of those late summer crocus blooms come from a bulb called colchicum, which is not really a crocus at all. Its blossoms do look like those of crocuses — crocuses on steroids. And that's the size blossom it might take to catch our eyes after a summer of flowers.
The bulbs are pricey, but don't let that you scare you away, because a dozen or so flowers unfold from each bulb over the course of a few weeks. Depending on the variety and species of autumn crocus that you plant, you could have crocus-y blossoms right through late fall.
One of the best autumn crocuses is Colchicum speciosum, a robust plant bearing large, shapely blooms of soft, rosy pink. When fully open, each flower is almost a half-foot across. How's that for a "crocus"?
Despite their look-alike flowers, colchicums do not sport the delicate, strappy leaves of true crocuses. The large leaves appear in spring for a few weeks, then start to brown as the plant goes dormant, at which point they're not a very pretty sight.
Deal with this by planting the bulbs beneath some evergreen groundcover, or distant enough so that although the flowers can be appreciated in autumn, the browning leaves meld with the soil in late spring.
And now for real crocuses
Not all autumn crocuses are fake crocuses; some real ones also blossom in fall. These have the delicate flowers, in white or shades of purple, and the bright orange stigmas sported by their spring-flowering cousins.Again, there are few species, and they differ in bloom time, colors and size. Most commonly offered is Crocus speciosus, but also keep an eye out for others, such as C. laevigatus and C. longiflorus, both with sweet fragrances.
Growing crocuses, 'real' or not
Autumn crocuses and autumn-flowering crocuses enjoy the same growing conditions enjoyed by most spring-flowering bulbs — that is, moderately rich, well-drained soil in sun or dappled shade.
However, these autumn-flowering bulbs differ from spring-flowering bulbs in their need to be planted earlier, preferably in late summer.
This need causes a problem, a marketing problem rather than a gardening one. Nurseries hype and sell spring-flowering bulbs in autumn, and summer-flowering bulbs in spring. It's hard to drum up fanfare for midsummer sales of the few autumn-flowering bulbs needing planting then.
If you have trouble finding these bulbs locally, buy from mail-order firms. Depending on when you actually get bulbs in hand, you might find autumn crocuses blooming in their packaging.
If you wanted to "plant" autumn crocus for even more startling effect than the outdoor show, albeit on a small scale, just set a bulb that has not yet flowered on a dish or just a countertop and wait for it to bloom there. Blooming out of the soil will not hurt the bulb, but do plant it outside as soon as the blossoms fade.
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