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a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

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or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Naked Lady

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Flowers of naked lady never fail to surprise—even if, like me, you wait patiently for them each year, knowing that a certain patch of bare dirt in September will suddenly sprout a clutch of foot-tall flowers by October. The disappointment of Colchicum speciosum in Spring—when there is plenty of big and tediously long-lasting foliage but no flowers—is flipped to even greater delight when the flowers emerge in early Fall: Then there's no foliage at all, so the show is 100% floral.

 

A naked lady flower can be as large as many a tulip, so the show is hard to miss. Amid the general "shaggy chic" tone of most gardens in Fall, the crispness and size of the floral display of Colchicum is a welcome shock. Flowers of Colchicum speciosum are bright lavender that transitions to white with just a touch of yellow at the base. Notice the pink pistil at the center of the ring of anthers that look like doll-house cocktail wieners.

 

 

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Naked lady flowers aren't usually thought of for a vase, but if you have tall narrow ones, they can be just the thing. In the garden, the flowers can easily flop over right from the bottom and, so, lie on the ground as though in a dead faint. There's no danger of that when they are in a high vase with a small opening. Then the lip of the base can provide the support the top-heavy blossoms need. 

 

 

Colchicum-speciosum-bouquet-100114-640

 

Here's how to grow this very hardy perennial:

 

Latin Name

Colchicum speciosum

Common Name

Naked lady, meadow saffron, autumn crocus. Note that the last two of these common names are both highly misleading: Saffron comes from Crocus sativus, which is a species in the iris family, Iridaceae, and the asparagus order, Asparagales. All forms of Colchicum are in the Colchicaceae family, which is in the lily order, Liliales. Plus, there are a number of forms of Crocus that also flower in the Fall—not least, Crocus sativus. All in all, the common name of naked lady is both more racy and less confusing.

Family

Colchicaceae, the Naked lady family.

What kind of plant is it?

Herbaceous perennial that grows from a bulb-like corm.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 9. 

Habit

Stemless and tightly-clumping.    

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

The foliage can be over a foot tall, and a clump's total canopy can spread nearly two feet wide. The flowers are just over a foot tall, and the clump's tightly-arrayed clutch of flowers can be under a foot across. However, blossoms quickly keel over, right from ground level, even while they retain their form and coloring. So the total dimension of a clump's floral display can widen significantly as the show crests and then subsides.

Texture

The foliage has a hosta-like size and density; gardeners in Zone 7 and warmer might find a closer resemblance to that of Aspidistra. The clump's flowers emerge directly from the ground long after the foliage has matured and fallen away. They are closely-held, at least before they start keeling over, and create a concentrated show about as large as a bowling ball.

Grown for

its flowers: In all their details, the flowers of Colchicum speciosum are knock-outs. First, they are huge: Crocus flowers might be two to six inches tall; those of Colchicum speciosus are (just) over a foot high. Then they appear, seemingly out of nowhere: The bulb's large foliage emerges in Spring, and has long disappeared by the time the flowers emerge in early Fall. Plus, their bright rose-lavender coloring and fresh energy are a welcome jolt so late in the season, when most of the garden's plants have grown shaggy and are clearly getting ready to pack it in for the year.    

 

its imperviousness to most browsers: All forms of Colchicum are poisonous in foliage, flowers, and corms. It's always a relief to be able to use any plant without worry that your garden's four-footed foragers will suddenly eat them for lunch. Slugs, however, can chew the leaves with impunity.

 

its reliability and durability: Colchicum speciosum is easy to establish and, as long as the foliage is not removed prematurely, clumps can thrive year after year without needing division or worry that their vigor will flag. Because this is a species, not a hybrid, seeds come true; where circumstances are encouraging (see 'Culture', below), new colonies can pop up far from the mother clump. It is thought that rodents help disperse the seeds.

 

its flexibility in terms of exposure: Most bulbs typically prefer to receive full sun when their foliage is active; full sun is usually essential, e.g., for long-term success with tulips, alliums, and hyacinths. While Colchicum thrives in full sun, many forms, including C. speciosum, seem to do just as well in part shade. This flexibility is particularly welcome in that the species' large and, to some eyes, coarse foliage can motivate siting in less prominent and, therefore, often more shady locations.

Flowering season

Early Fall: The first week in October here in southern New England.

Color combinations

With each blossom as large as a tulip, a Colchicum clump in full flower is a large blast of color. It's also a concentrated one: Tulip blooms are held at the tip of stems that can be quite tall and willowy, whereas Colchicum flowers are stemless, and emerge directly from the soil. The effect is that of a check-by-jowl nosegay of blossoms. Although the flowers of Colchicum speciosum appear lavender outdoors, indoors they often appear to be bright pink. Although the tepals of mature blooms open wide enough for the interior of the flower to be readily visible, the overall impression of a Colchicum clump in bloom is that of exterior surfaces, which are solid lavender (or pink) above the chilly white of the lengthy tall perianth tube.

 

The flowers of Colchicum speciosum mix readily with almost any color that is in easy relation to pink, from white to rose to purple to blue to indigo to burgundy. Very pale yellow is another possibility. 

Plant partners

Companion plants for Colchicum can help finesse the bulb's large foliage, its spectactular but floppy flowers, and the bare ground over and around the clump that would otherwise be evident the eight months of the year when neither foliage nor flowers is present. 

 

The easiest option is to choose shallow-rooted perennial groundcovers that tolerate both sun and shade, and that stay low and grow fast. They won't mind when, all of a sudden each Spring, the immense Colchicum leaves thrust above them and cast dense shade—nor, when those same leaves disappear as Summer settles in, then exposing that same growth to full sun. Asarum canadensisAjuga pyramidalisGalium odoratum, Hedera helix, Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea', Pachysandra terminalis or procumbens, and Vinca minor (or, in Zone 7 and warmer, Vinca major) are likely candidates.

 

Higher groundcovers might also succeed provided their growth isn't so dense that the Colchicum clumps would be hidden, or so spreading that they would be shaded out. What about Dennstaedtia punctilobula? Colchicum foliage and flowers are both big-boned, so the contrast with this fern's feathery vertical fronds would be intense in two seasons. And perhaps their verticality would bolster the flowers, too.

 

For all of the hardy choices above, monitor how thickly and quickly their growth—above ground and below—might cover the Colchicum clumps. You may need to pull back stems and their attached roots from the immediate patch of the clump so that its leaves and flowers can emerge without hindrance. If you're planning on pairing Colchicum with any perennial groundcover, help ensure that the groundcover's roots aren't competing with those of the Colchicum by planting the bulbs more deeply—with the tops of the bulbs six inches underground—and ensuring that the soil of the planting bed is especially deeply prepared.

 

Another option is companion plants that are seasonal. Most of these are fast-growing by definition. I grow my clumps of Colchicum speciosum in two long lines, in a gap between two runs of low hedges of yew and box. One Summer, I planted a single tuber of Mirabilis between each pair of adjacent Colchicum clumps. There was enough room for the stems of the four o'clocks to emerge even when the Colchicum foliage was still evident, and they continued to lengthen in the warm weather, covering the then-dormant Colchicum clumps entirely. When the Colchicum flowers emerged, I pruned back any overhead Mirabilis stems so that the Colchicum flowers' ascent and display wasn't impeded. Other Mirabilis stems remained in place to support the Colchicum flowers and—just as nice—the impatiens-like four o'clock flowers were still being produced. The partnership was, at once, coloristic and structural.

 

Another seasonal option would be to plant ornamental kale, Brassica oleracea, amid the Colchicum clumps. These kales are available in the same pink-friendly colors as Colchicum, and the kale's new leaves would achieve their brightest coloring in the same cool early-Fall season as the Colchicum flowers. Choose among the feathery-leaved forms, such as the Peacock series. If you plant them closely enough, the kales' low and dense mounds would bolster the upward and outward trajectory of the Colchicum flowers. Yet another choice would be a cascading coleus such as 'Trailing Queen,' or ornamental sweet potatoes such as Ipomoea batata 'Blackie' or 'Margarite'. The coleus and the sweet potatoes are both hot-weather lovers, but would still be vigorous by the time the Colchicum flowers emerge.

Where to use it in your garden

Where you site Colchicum might have almost nothing to do with what you'd think would be the whole reason to plant it: The enormous appeal and diversity of its flowers. Instead, the large foliage might sway your thinking significantly. The leaves have a hosta-like bulk and scale—and they take their time in early Summer as they mature, lose their green pigment, and become ripe enough, finally, for you to clip them off.

 

If you're lazy or distracted—or, ahem, more evolved—you could be comfortable with (or at least accepting of) the seasonal cycle of Colchicum foliage. Then you can just let it die down naturally. All three motivations work for me, such that I don't get around to pulling away the then-brown leaves until late July. But the good news is that, because I'm easy-going about Colchicum foliage anyway, I also haven't needed to locate my clumps in some purgatorial location—not so prominent that I'd see it whenever I'm in the garden, but not so obscure or compromised that the show of extraordinary flowers would be like putting lipstick on the proverbial pig.

 

Instead, acceptance of Colchicum foliage allows you to site the bulbs where their flowers do the most good. After all, it's not as if there's another option for a Fall-flowering plant with foot-tall blossoms that browsers never touch, arising from bulbs that thrive on their own for decades. Putting Colchicum where you can be grateful for its flowers and not give a damn about the foliage is, I think, one of the many small victories of life. To make apologies for Colchicum on account of its foliage, let alone to avoid the genus altogether, seems the sign of a sadly narrow life. Rather, plant Colchicum front-and-center, where its sui generis blooms are in full view whenever you look out the window or go outside.

 

All this is not to suggest that there aren't ways to finesse the large foliage. See "Plant partners," above, and "Another option," below. 

Culture

Plant in any loosened, reasonably fertile soil, deep enough so that there are three to five inches of soil above the tip of the bulbs, and three to five inches of loosened soil beneath the bulbs' bases. Locations in part shade seem to be as welcome as those in full sun. As is typical for bulbs, good drainage is always the better choice. Avoid siting in low spots; instead, site where surface water is more likely to drain away rather than soaking in. Bulbs planted in soil that remains too moist are prone to rotting.

How to handle it: The Basics.

If you've purchased bulbs, plant them as soon after purchase as possible. Transplant or divide established clumps after the foliage has died down in mid-Summer. Keep in mind that Colchicum is strikingly inflexible about flowering, and will bloom on schedule whether or not bulbs are (back) in the ground. Although bulbs planted even when in full flower will eventually establish and thrive, their long-term performance is smoothest when planted while fully dormant. Each individual bulb will form a nice clump—in a few years, true—but if your goal is for a quicker critical mass of flowers, or even a uniform carpet of bloom, plant about three bulbs per square foot. On the other hand, in such extensive and closely-spaced groupings, the bulbs' large and densely-carried foliage will prevent establishment of an interstitial companion plant that might enhance the floral display or fill in the many months when neither the Colchicum flowers or foliage is present. See "Partner plants," above, and "Another option—or two!", below.

 

Force yourself to keep your clippers in the holster during the weeks in Spring and early Summer when the Colchicum foliage is present. It's large and, alas, there aren't any cultivars with foliage that's, say, edged in white or striped in yellow or—channeling Australia cannas or Sparkling Burgundy eucomis—deepest burgundy. Regardless, wait to clip off the leaves until they have completely passed from green to yellow.

 

Take care not to disturb the clumps during the Summer months between foliage senescence and the emergence of the flowers. There won't be any above-ground sign of the clump, and one forgetful stab with a trowel can slice through bulbs or mangle buds that are developing below ground.

 

The emerging buds are a foolproof surprise and, as each clump's complement emerges, the show is irresistibly dramatic. The excitement is only increased when you plant a number of clumps where they can all be seem in the same glance. In my experience, there's an interval of a week and more during which the first buds in each clump appear: Every day, then, buds of additional clumps join the performance, while additional buds of already-showing clumps swell the ranks further. Then begins the inevitable flopping over of the flowers while at their literal height of beauty.

 

If you have only a few clumps, you could go out every day to clip off prostrate flowers. Or (like the rest of us) just accept that plenty of flowers (floppy or erect) is the sign of a happy Colchicum clump. After all the flowers have swooned, then they can be clipped away. This is likely to be more satisfying to do if you've established clumps amid a lower groundcover: The clean-up will reveal something besides open ground. If you don't remove the spent flowers, don't worry. The advancing season will soon bring drifting Fall foliage that will mix with them. By Spring, they'll be gone.

How to handle: Another option—or two!

Yes, Colchicum is a challenge whenever its growth is above ground: The obtrusive and slow-to-mature foliage tries your patience Spring into Summer, while the astonishing flowers in early Fall are all too quick to keel over. Creative choices in siting and companion plants, as well as in how you array multiple clumps, might not turn these faults into out-and-out desirables. But they'll certainly show that you know how to make tasty lemonade from lemons. 

 

The easiest choice is to resist the temptation for en masse display of Colchicum. (In this regard, autumn crocuses are the opposite of true crocuses: A densely-planted lawn of Crocus, with thousands of blossoms open at a time, is the ultimate achievement.) Plant Colchicum as single bulbs—even as isolated soloists—with plenty of space between bulbs if you choose to plant them in groups. Then, you have hope of establishing between the clusters of leaves or flowers produced by each bulb one of the spreading groundcovers mentioned in "Partner plants" above. They will fill in the gaps when the foliage and flowers aren't present, provide a lively backdrop when they are, and (maybe) give leaning flowerbuds some support so that their vertical performance is extended. 

 

An even more brash strategy is to double-down on the deficits of Colchicum foliage and flowers by establishing clumps in a geometric array—a grid, say, where clumps are two feet apart in staggered rows. Then there will be no question that, yes, this really is how big the foliage grows and, yes, when the flowers fall over all around the still-emerging center ones, they create a ring of ground-level color this big in diameter. Plus, the ring of now-horizontal blooms could look like the ray petals of an immense lavender daisy, with the remaining erect flowers in the center playing the part of the daisy's core of disk flowers.

Quirks and special cases

The confusion between Crocus and Colchicum will be ever with us. There are forms of Crocus that flower in the Fall (albeit later than is usual for Colchicum), and there are forms of Colchicum that flower in the Spring. (Still other forms of Colchicum flower in Winter or Summer; see "Variants," below.) Do your part to increase clarity by encouraging the use of the common name of naked lady for any Colchicum, reserving crocus only for forms of Crocus. Better yet, encourage adoption of colchicum as the common name for all forms of Colchicum.

Downsides

To some, the leisurely life cycle of the large and profuse Spring-into-Summer foliage is a trial instead of an opportunity for "cod liver oil is good for you" acceptance of it as a necessary prelude to the stunning floral display in Fall. See "Plant partners" and the second "How to handle it" box, above, for ways to ease the pain.

 

Also, the flowers behave as if they are too tall for stability: They soon flop to the side, making the display a combination of eager buds still soaring skyward, just-open flowers in their moment of erect perfection, and prostrate flowers that seem to have collapsed prematurely or are spent and messy. See "Plant partners" for companions that can be supportive physically as well as aesthetically.  

Variants

Flowers of 'Album' are pure white. Those of 'Atrorubens' are a deep lavender with a white throat. Rosy-pink flowers of 'Waterlily' are extravagantly double, and open much wider than the typical tulip or goblet shape of the flowers of the single forms; this cultivar is a hybrid of C. autumnale and C. speciosumColchicum speciosum itself also has natural variation, with flowers in almost any shade from pink to deep purple. Alas, it's rare even for a bulb specialist to list these unnamed forms.

 

There are scores of other Colchicum species, which extend the bloom season into all four seasons. Colchicum speciosum and another large-flowered form, Colchicum autumnale, are justifiably the gateway plants into this broad genus: Their flowers are the largest, and the thrill of "Spring" flowers' appearance in Fall, out of nowhere, is irresistible. That naked lady blooms, bulbs, and foliage are all avoided by browsers is reason enough to grow many different forms. Unlike the sometimes heroic measures needed to protect crocuses from hungry critters, naked ladies can be planted freely and unguardedly.

 

There are Crocus flowers in burgundy, orange, and yellow—and, with the multicolored forms available, all three colors at once. Unlike these true crocuses, though, the range of colors for Colchicum stays within a white-pink-purple range (with the sole exception of Colchicum luteumthe only Colchicum with yellow flowers)Will there ever be a Crocus or Colchicum with flowers that are neither deep purple nor deep orange but, rather, true red? Given the scores of species in each genus, and their relative ease of hydridizing, perhaps there's hope.

Availability

On-line as well as at retailers.

Propagation

By division of clumps in mid-Summer, after the foliage has died down and long before the flowers have begun to emerge. Lift a clump, separate the corms, and replant as soon as possible. Although Colchicum can naturalize by seed, they are notoriously challenging to grow from seed; germination can take several years and, even then, is spotty.

Native habitat

Colchicum speciosus is native to Turkey, northern Iran, and the Caucasus. 

 
 
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