Laura Dean Bennett
Each plucky little crocus is a sight for sore eyes after a long winter.
Crocus flowers are in the Iridaceae (iris) family.
They can be found from sea level to the peaks of the mountains in West Virginia and nearly all around the world.
Crocuses seem to favor a dappled sunlit area of the woods, but they can also thrive out in the open – on hardscrabble ground or in sunny meadows.
And, as gardeners know, they are fond of living in flower beds, too, as long as their “feet” are never kept wet.
We think of the crocus (Crocus vernus) as a spring flower but some varieties actually bloom in autumn and winter.
There are 90 varieties of these perennial flowers in varying colors, but the shapes are generally the same.
Crocuses are native to central and southern Europe, North Africa, the islands of the Aegean, the Middle East and all across central Asia to western China.
Mention of crocus was made in ancient Greek literature at least as far back as 300 B.C.
Records indicate that humans started cultivating crocus three-to-five thousand years ago for its saffron, which was used to flavor food and to make medicine.
Crocuses grew in abundance along the north coast of Africa and throughout the Middle East and were traded commercially throughout that region, the Mediterranean, Asia and Europe since Medieval times.
They were brought to England by French botanical enthusiasts.
As soon as they arrived in England, they were a hit.
They became so popular that they appeared to have grown wild throughout the countryside in a short space of time.
Hakluyt, in his “English Voyages,” published in the 1580s, said, authoritatively but erroneously, that the “saffron crocus” grew wild in parts of Herefordshire, “where the best of all England is.”
Toward the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, there were already dozens of varieties well-known to most gardeners in England.
Shakespeare mentioned the medicinal herb, saffron (gathered from the stamens of the crocus), in The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1, when he wrote:
Hail, many-colored messenger, that ne’er
Dost disobey the wife of Jupiter
Who with thy saffron wings upon my flowers
Diffusest honey-drops, refreshing showers…
By 1870, a famous British botanical scholar, George Maw, catalogued 60 species of crocus in a book about the little flowers.
Crocuses came to the United States on ships carrying settlers who planted them in colonial flower beds in, what seems to me, to have been a brave and hopeful gesture.
I have no trouble imagining those about to make that ocean voyage scouring their flower beds and gardens for their best-growing produce and favorite flowers to transplant in the soil of their new life.
What would be a more cheerful or hopeful flower to bring than crocuses, to make out of this wild place, a home?
Crocus grow not from bulbs, but from “corms.”
Just as bulbs do for their flowers, crocuses’ corms serve as a storehouse for the crocuses’ food which provides the energy for the plant to grow, bloom and complete its lifecycle each year.
Flowers that grow from corms include crocus, freesia and gladiolas.
And crocuses are so much more than pretty faces. They give us a delicious spice, useful medicine and a beautiful dye.
The delicate petals of the crocus flower were brewed into herbal medicines said to cure ailments ranging from asthma to depression in many ancient cultures.
Saffron, made from the stamens of the crocus, is a famous medicinal herb and a spice with a long history of use.
All varieties of crocuses, no matter what color they are, produce stamens from which saffron may be derived.
These days, we are more familiar with saffron as a spice than a medicine.
It is used as a flavoring and yellow coloring for breads, soups, sauces, rice and puddings.
Saffron is essential to many traditional dishes such as paella, bouillabaisse, risotto milanese and various other Italian, Indian and Spanish dishes.
Nutritionists tell us it is a rich source of riboflavin.
Saffrons “yield per plant” is extremely low – 4,000 stamen yield only about 25 grams of saffron.
That’s why saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, with a cost equal to platinum.
It takes 150,000 flowers and 400 hours of labor to produce 2.2 pounds of dried saffron.
Thank goodness it takes very small quantities to impart the golden color and delicious flavor to cuisine.
Saffron’s taste is described by some as a combination of metallic honey and sweet hay.
Some cooks say that saffron is the only spice that can completely neutralize the fishy smell of fish or seafood.
Perhaps that is why saffron has long been paired with fish, shrimp, mussels and other seafood dishes in Mediterranean cooking.
Saffron is also used to make tea.
As a medicine, saffron has been used by many cultures as an antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, appetite-encourager, expectorant, sedative, stimulant, as medicine to quiet indigestion and colic and as a dental analgesic.
The mashed roots are used as a poultice and the cooked and dried root used to brew tea.
As with many plants that have medicinal uses, the crocus comes with some warnings and should only be used as medicine with the advice of a physician.
Parts of the plant can be poisonous.
Saffron is perfectly safe in normal usage, but five-to-10 grams of saffron has been known to cause death.
Eating or making a tea from the corms should be avoided as the corms can be fatal to some small animals.
The yellow dye obtained from the crocuses’ stamens has been used for many centuries to color cloth.
It is the favored dye for the cloth used in making the famous Buddhist monks’ robes.
A blue or green dye is also made from crocus petals.
Crocus can be grown from its corms or, occasionally and usually with great difficulty, from seed. It takes three years for the plants to flower from seed.
Division of clumps of crocuses is only recommended in late summer, after the plant has died back.
If you transplant a crocus or divide a large clump of them, do so carefully, taking care not to cut into the corms.
Mark the area around the plant when it is blooming, as it will be nearly impossible to find later.
Crocus corms are available at some nurseries and on the Internet.
They may be planted directly into their permanent homes.
Crocus is hardy to Zone 5 and their corms must provide some protection against extreme cold, as the brave little flowers have been known to survive cold snaps down to minus 4 degrees.
They prefer their soil on the dry side, though, and do not tolerate long periods of wetness.
As you are enjoying them this spring, you can thank our ancestors who had the foresight to bring them along on their journey to the New World.