Tuesday 12th December 2017
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Words: Steffie Shields
Photography: Steffie Shields
Featured in the September 2017 issue

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Steffie Shields highlights striking autumn-flowering bulbs.

Blessed with a photographic memory, often able to recall where I first laid eyes on an unusual plant, shrub or tree, my first encounter with autumn-flowering bulbs came in north-east Scotland. I braved seaside squalls to tackle a stony, overgrown flowerbed, stuffed with couch grass. A few months later, my efforts were rewarded. A surprise show appeared beside a pink, Peterhead granite wall enclosing our RAF quarter’s front garden: as if by magic, goblet-shaped flowers, six-petalled, pinkish-purple with bright yellow stamens, as if huge crocuses on steroids, but with no leaves. Stunningly vibrant in the sunshine, yet strange, who associates the crocus with September? 

Moving south to RAF Cranwell, I joined Lincolnshire Gardens Trust, a great opportunity to explore many of the county’s fascinating gardens such as Norton Place, north of Lincoln. The setting for architect John Carr’s elegant Palladian house (c1776), designed by landscape designer Thomas White Senior (1736 – 1811), one of several foremen trained by ‘Capability’ Brown, has proved a gem of a historic park. A pleasure-ground walk in a shower of rain, the path mirroring the snaking ha-ha nearby, skirted by pastel spring hyacinths and massed daffodils filling the air with perfume, opened my eyes to a new discovery. A circle of shiny, fresh and thick leaves, like wild garlic only bigger, glistening with raindrops, attracted attention. The head gardener paused and nodded. These leaves, the spring dress of Colchicum bulbs, he explained, were feeding energy down to corms, before dying down completely in summer. “Come back in September. You will see a most magnificent array of rich, purple blooms.”

I never did manage to return. Nevertheless, now I know how ‘naked ladies’ can dazzle, I still like to imagine them emerging to create a choral, purple garland for that staid, old English oak.

When my husband retired, and we moved into our current home, I could tell the previous owners had been keen gardeners. As soon as the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ arrived, conspiring with the sun ‘to fill all fruit with ripeness to the core’, two intriguing flowers emerged: Colchicum agrippinum and a narrow vase-shaped autumn crocus, the former has tessellated petals with strange square patterning, reminiscent of spring’s snake’s head fritillary, the latter short-lived, delicate pale blue, with navy-blue veins, that I have yet to identify. John Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn’ is said to be one of the most perfect short poems in the English language. In the line: ‘to set budding more, and still more, later flowers for the bees,’ I wonder if he was referring to Colchicum?

Autumn-flowering bulbs, available to buy from July and August, lend a much-needed ‘pop of colour’. Seen from a distance, they trick the brain into thinking spring is nigh. At first, preferring springtime, I confess, I found their whole idea annoying. As years rolled by, I have come to anticipate their welcome arrival just as herbaceous treasures are fading, its summer borders increasingly blown and jaded. I simply love so-called ‘naked ladies’ for their fresh, clear colour, and they respond to sun like no other flower.

These members of the lily family are much-loved haunts for insects. The name Colchicum comes from the mountainous Caucasus region in Georgia, known by the Ancient Greeks as Colchis, in mythical legend the place of Medea and the golden fleece. Most perennial species, about 160 in total, grow from corm-like bulbs in late summer and early autumn, and stem from Turkey and Iran, parts of the Mediterranean, the East African coast, and South Africa. All are easy to grow, are clump-forming and naturalise well, in a sheltered spot enjoying afternoon sun. There is one pink wildflower native to Britain, Colchicum autumnale, confusingly called an autumn crocus, or, more charmingly, meadow saffron, which was once a common sight in damp grasslands, and now rarely seen due to changes in agricultural practice. 

One of the largest, double-flowered Colchicums, also RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) recommended, the popular, well-named and showy ‘Waterlily’, has many narrow petals the colour of pink and purple amethyst. I planted five bulbs that, over the years, have nicely doubled up around a Victoria plum tree, that makes me think of the ‘Ring-a-ring-a-roses’ nursery-rhyme. Nearby, equally eye-catching and vigorous, my favourite, Colchicum speciosum ‘Album’, emerging buds on bare, lime-green stalks, are like candle lightbulbs, little beacons seeking the limelight, shining out as pure white as light. According to garden writer Val Bourne, “the unrivalled queen of autumn crocuses”, as each pristine flower opens, its yellow-orange stamens attract multitudes of bees and hoverflies. Come spring, its shiny leaves contrast well with cow parsley. Be warned, although medicinally used to treat gout, Colchicum leaves, seeds and corms are highly poisonous.

The National Collection of Colchicums, maintained at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk (National Trust) is a destination now on my bucket list. There is still time to order bulbs for dispatch in September and October, for flowering later in October. Potterton’s Nursery, (www.pottertons.co.uk), based at Nettleton near Caistor, has an excellent range of temperate Colchicum and offer a mixed, autumn-flowering collection of fifty bulbs. Plant them immediately after they arrive 3” (7.5cm) deep, and 3” (7.5 cm) apart in raised beds, troughs, lawn or orchard meadow. The mix includes Sternbergia, tender perennial bulbs of the Amaryllis family. Though hardy, with an AGM, I have yet to come across a good show in this country. They prefer acidic soil, flower in autumn or early winter, do best in a south-facing aspect and are now naturalised in many areas of Europe. If you have ever spied a green sward sprinkled liberally with Sternbergia lutea, as if glorious golden, scented crocus, as I have one September holiday in northern Italy, you will appreciate my drift. Worse than my pun, Sternbergia flowers with strap-like leaves are sometimes called winter daffodils!

Yellow, the most luminous of all colours, brings happiness, while white symbolises innocence and new beginnings. Purple, the royal colour of good judgment and peace of mind, helps one to meditate. With the darkest hours of barren, winter gloom looming on the near horizon, why not give your garden a gorgeous, ornamental ‘wow factor’? It’s Nature’s way of reminding us that she never lets us down for long. More treats, ‘pops’ of colour-rich crocus, will soon herald awakening spring.

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