Life Gardens

Thursday 17 October 2019

Diarmuid Gavin: The vibrant crocus bulbs will blow away any winter cobwebs still lurking around

The vibrant crocus bulbs will blow away any winter cobwebs still lurking around

A carpet of colourful crocuses
A carpet of colourful crocuses
Fresh Saffron flowers known also as Crocus sativus used as a spice for flavoring and coloring food especially rice.

Diarmuid Gavin

The stretch in the evening is noticeable and some say that February 1 marked the first day of spring. What’s certain is that despite last week’s heavy showers and strong winds, winter is gently ebbing away.

On the trees in my garden the buds are fattening and the spring flowering bulbs are pushing optimistically through some still shivering soil. A few weeks back we celebrated the first flowering bulb of the new year — the beautiful snowdrop.

But now we will embrace bulbs with vibrant colour. Among the most hardy and consistent of the spring bulbs is the crocus, a host of whom are planning their annual colourful assault. It can be too easy to take these beauties for granted. They’re not idolised like the prima donna snowdrops nor are they ego-maniacal show-offs like narcissi. However they are worthy of our attention. Why?

Well, originating from central and southern Europe and Asia, they’ve been heralding the spring throughout these islands since the days of the Roman Empire. They don’t twerk like Miley, or trumpet like a tête á tête, their petals aren’t embossed with seductive marking like some fritillaries, but through sheer dint of providing a damn good show, they’ve earned a special place in the hearts of Irish gardeners.

When used en masse, an ordinary lawn can be transformed into a carpet of sumptuous gold and purple, woven into a tapestry of jewel-like flowers that bring much needed colour back into our wintry gardens. As a young horticultural student studying in Dublin’s Botanic Gardens, I marvelled at what seemed like acres of these beauties in the turf and under the canopy of large trees.

So, what should we look for when planning our crocus invasion? A good start is to scatter handfuls of crocus tomassinianus which are best for naturalising. Crocus ‘Barr’s Purple’ and ‘Ruby Giant’ have rich colours. Again, plant in drifts in the autumn about four inches deep. If they’re happy they will multiply and form a carpet.

If you’re planting crocus or other small early flowering bulbs in a lawn, dig your spade in at a right angle, raise the flap of turf, pop the bulbs in, and back cover gently with the turf. A final neat mow of the lawn in autumn should ensure that the grass will be still short enough to display the bulbs to their advantage at this time of the year.

Ideally, if you want the crocus to spread you will have to live with some shaggy turf in early spring and refrain from mowing the grass until late April or even May. This will allow the leaves of the crocus time to photosynthesise and gather enough energy for next year’s display. Mice and other rodents can be a problem — squirrels find crocus irresistible. One protection method is to cover the planted bulbs in some chicken wire, then cover with soil.

These understated beauties also make good container plants — single varieties, jam-packed, will make a pleasing window display or brighten up the doorstep. The Dutch crocus, crocus vernus, tend to be the bigger, showier varieties; for example, Jeanne D’Arc has beautiful white goblet flowers or Yellow Mammoth is a lively, vibrant specimen.

If scent is one of your top requirements, then try crocus chrysanthus, the golden crocus which is fragrant. Zwanenburg Bronze, also fragrant, has beautiful golden leaves, marked with bronze. But I think the prettiest of all is C. tricolour, which has lovely open flowers in a combination of lilac, white and yellow.

Ideally, crocus like sunny, well-drained soil. However they will flourish under deciduous trees as their canopy only develops long after the crocus has flowered. Rock gardens are an ideal habitat so long as you don’t mind them popping up randomly throughout. You’ll also be keeping the bees and other insects happy as they are a very good source of early pollen and nectar in the garden.

And did you know that crocus is the source of saffron, the most expensive spice in the world? It’s obtained from the dried stigmas of crocus sativus (left). Each flower contains only three stigmas which need to be removed and dried. It takes over 100,000 flowers to produce a pound of saffron. It has been cultivated for thousands of years for its use not only as a spice, but also as a perfume, dye and for medicinal purposes. These bulbs flower in autumn, so unlike the spring-flowering crocus, they should be planted from July to September in lovely fertile soil — possibly making an interesting addition to your veg and herb patch. This will certainly be a less expensive alternative to buying in the shops. Imagine the bragging power of growing your own saffron? I bet few of our celebrity chefs can boast of that.

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