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GardenSMART :: Colchicums are Fall-Blooming Beauties

Colchicums are Fall-Blooming Beauties

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

When you think of fall flowers, flowering bulbs don't usually come to mind, but there are a few, and they add a soft pastel touch to the garden. One is the genus Colchicum. Their colors – pinks, whites, and lavenders – are a refreshing alternative to the bold yellows, oranges and reds of traditional autumn flowers.

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It's not just their candy colors that make colchicums notable. They're a two-act plant: big, tulip-like leaves emerge in spring, grow and fade over the summer. Then in early- or mid-fall, depending on the species, the flowers pop up, sans foliage. This habit gives colchicums one of their common names, naked ladies, due to the lack of leaves around the stems. (There are other plants with the same habit and common name, including Amaryllis belladonna and Lycoris squamigera.)

To confuse things further: Though another common name is autumn crocus, colchicums are not true crocuses. There is a true autumn crocus, Crocus sativus. Both spring- and fall-flowering crocuses are members of the iris family; colchicums are members of the colchicaceae family, which includes gloriosa lily. Crocus sativus is the saffron crocus; its stigmas yield edible saffron. Flowers in the genera Colchicum and Crocus resemble one another, so the difference between the two is important, since all parts of colchicum are toxic.

Toxicity aside, colchicum has been used for centuries as a medicinal plant, and a derivative, colchicine, is still used to treat gout.

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Botanically, colchicums are corms (an underground storage organ with a swollen stem base), but are usually referred to as bulbs (an underground storage organ with a short stem). They are native to the Mediterranean, West Asia and Europe. Colchicum autumnale is native to Great Britain and Ireland. As a result, colchicums are better known across the pond than they are here.

The large leaves that appear in spring and are gone by summer will yellow and become ratty, so either plant colchicums where their foliage can be overlooked or tolerate the temporary untidiness. Plant bulbs where the foliage won't be mowed over. The flowers grow 4 to 12 inches high. One bulb can produce as many as 15 flowers.

How to grow:

When: Blooms September to mid-October. Plant in late summer, or even in September. Bulbs will bloom the same season.

Where: Plant in sun to part shade. The more sun they have, the less they'll flop over, though in hotter regions afternoon shade is best.

How: Plant about 4 inches deep and 10 to 12 inches apart.

Soil: Well-drained, slightly moist, fertile soil.

Care: Fertilize in spring. Reduce watering in summer as the leaves fade. Divide every three years or so.

Colchicums are hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 to 9. All parts of the plant are toxic. Though slugs and snails will chew the leaves, squirrels, voles, rabbits, and deer won't touch the plants. But pollinators love them!

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'Waterlily' is an heirloom and the showiest of the colchicum crowd, with big, strappy pinkish-violet double flowers that do look like water lilies.

'Rosy Dawn' has smaller (to 6 inches), rose-colored flowers with white centers. Fragrant.

'Album' has pure white flowers that reach 6 to 8 inches.

'Lilac Wonder' another heirloom, has lilac flowers with a thin white stripe down the center. Very free-flowering.

Since colchicums have that "now you see me, now you don't" growth habit, keep track of where you planted them so you don't accidently dig them up.

Colchicums look terrific paired with lavender-flowered hostas and the speckled flowers of toad lily (Tricyrtis). They also look good with sedums, Japanese anemones and popping out from groundcovers. Grow them in flowerbeds, meadows, and woodland gardens. They are a long-lasting cut flower.


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