Thursday, September 10, 2009

Colchicum Brings History and Legend To Life

Plants in the genus Colchicum are sometimes called Autumn Crocus, which they resemble.  But they are not true crocus.  The name, Colchicum (pronounced KOHL-chik-um), refers to Colchis, their native region.  Colchis is the area near the Black Sea which was the destination of Jason and the Argonauts in Greek Mythology.

Colchicum are also known as Naked Ladies, inspired by the fact that the blooms appear in the fall without foliage present.   There are, in fact, many plants that share that name.   So to walk into your local garden center and ask for Naked Ladies may not only cause some confusion, but might get you arrested.  I always recommend using botanical names.

Flowering is during fall, and colors range from white to pink to lilac.  Colchicum are effective in container gardens, bulb gardens and borders.  One unique characteristic is that they will often sprout and bloom directly from the bare bulb without the benefit of chilling.  Forcing never was so easy!  Colchicum are also superb for naturalizing.

The plants are hardy in USDA climate zones 5 to 8, requiring full sun to partial shade and well-drained but consistently moist soil, preferably high in organic matter.  Recommended pH is from 6.1 to 7.5.  Use a high quality grade of potting soil if growing in containers.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  For a nominal fee, they will send it to a lab for analysis and return a report to you.

Unless you are naturalizing them in the lawn, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 10" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 15" deep.  Common soil amendments include sulfur for lowering pH, limestone for raising pH, sand for helping drainage, clay for slowing drainage, gypsum for breaking up caking clay and compost for enriching the soil.  Bone meal is especially good for bulbs.  Which you should use depends upon the recommendations of the lab anaylis based your particular circumstance.

Your soil sample report will also include fertilizer recommendations.  A fine all-around practice is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area of bulb garden.  Be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

Plant Colchicum 6" deep and 6" to 10" apart in the fall.  Depth is measured to the bottom of the hole.  Unless snow or rain fall is inadequate, irrigation should not be necessary.

Colchicum is one source of the drug, colchine.  Colchine has been in use for millenia as a treatment for arthritis, rheumatism and gout.  But it must be noted that all parts of the Colchicum plant are quite toxic when ingested.  Mythical Medea, Jason's vindictive wife, may have used it in the commission of her crimes.  Colchicum bulbs should not be confused with or planted near saffron (Crocus sativus) which they resemble and which blooms the same time of year.  Very sensitive persons should avoid direct skin contact.

It's interesting and very educational to grow a plant that has such an ancient and colorful past.  With a couple dozen Colchicum bulbs tucked away in your garden, history and legend will come alive every autumn.

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