The Crocus Family Of flowers–Origins And History

We think of the crocus as the spring flower and for its arrival we have all patiently awaited throughout the winter months. Unlike the charming but delicately flowered snowdrop which may bloom on any of the milder but still winter days, the colourful crocuses surely herald the warmer days of springtime. Their appearance, except for odd species, signifies that the winter has departed and we may now look forward to the real show of spring-flowering bulbs.

Nowhere is the spring-flowering crocus to be seen more resplendent in all its royal beauty of purple and gold than at ‘The Backs’ in Cambridge, carpeting those long avenues of limes and elms which lead across the gently flowing Cam to the backs of that lovely academic group of buildings, the Colleges of St. John’s, Trinity, Trinity Hall, Clare and King’s. There on any sunny day late in March, while theThe Crocus family sound of roller and mower echoes across the playing fields of Cambridge, one may wander through carpets of crocus, knowing full well that the door of the lecture-room will surely be closed upon arrival.

Would that Cambridge gave us as fine a display of the autumn-flowering crocus, equally lovely but unknown to so many gardens! Indeed, most gardeners believe that it is the Colchicum which is referred to when one mentions the species that flower throughout autumn. The Colchicum, or Meadow Saffron, is quite a separate plant, though this species too, does flower in autumn.


The origin of the species is lost in antiquity. It was known to Greek writers at least in the year 300 B.C. And it would appear that it was from the regions of Greece and Turkey that it eventually reached Britain. But it was possibly the autumn-flowering Crocus sativus, that arrived first. This plant grew in abundance along the north coast of Africa and throughout the Middle East and has been used in commerce since mediaeval times. Hakluyt, in his English Voiages, published in 158z, mentions that the saffron crocus grew wild in parts of Herefordshire, ‘where the best of all England is’, he says, and he is not far wrong.

During the reign of Edward VI the plant was introduced to that part of Essex now named Saffron Walden, by Sir Thomas Smith, Secretary of State to Edward VI, and a native of the village. His object was to commence a new industry for his villagers. Crocus sativus is a rich purple flower, the saffron being made from the dried stigmas of the bloom. It may still be purchased, just 400 years from its introduction into Essex.

But like so many of the flowers we know so well to-day, the primrose in all its delightful forms, the dianthus and the wallflower, it was through the Elizabethan gardeners and writers that the numerous species of the crocus came to be known to our gardens. The Elizabethan writer, Gerard, has referred to the introduction into England of the now so popular yellow spring-flowering crocus. He says, ‘that pleasant plant sent unto me from Rabinus of Paris’ – and again, ‘it hath flowers of a most perfect shining yellow colour like a hot glowing coal of fire’.

Later, Parkinson, in his famous Paradisi described thirty different varieties, but by 1870 George Maw included sixty species in his publication devoted entirely to the crocus. Of these a large number may be obtained to-day. Even towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth I there were a number of varieties known to most gardeners. Shakespeare in The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1, writes:

Hail, many-coloured messenger, that ne’er

Dost disobey the wife of Jupiter

Who with thy saffron wings upon my flowers

Diffusest honey-drops, refreshing showers.

In the reign of the Second Elizabeth it is sad to think that so few gardeners grow the lovely autumn-flowering species which will provide brilliancy of colour in the garden from early August until the later-flowering varieties link up with the first of the spring-flowering crocuses and so will provide a continuation of colour from August until the following May.

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