If you’re a fan of early bloomers, then the crocus is the plant for you. For what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in impression. Resilient and tough, these diminutive flowers will bloom for weeks, even in the harshest of weather. They’re the perfect way to brighten the last gloomy days of winter.
THEY CAN BE SNEAKY
Crocuses are part of the iris family (Iridaceae), and like irises, grow from bulb-like structures called corms. There are currently more than 80 known varieties. Of these, the majority bloom in late winter or early spring. But there are a few that flower in late fall.
Measuring in at a wee 3-6 inches, these perennials are indeed tiny. But they’re sneaky. Just when you think they’re dead, they pop up literally overnight. That’s because, unlike daffodils and tulips, their flowers emerge at the same time as the foliage.
Crocuses open when the sun shines, but close up at night and in rainy weather. There’s a rich pollen inside each flower. This is a boon for pollinators looking for a food source when not much else is available.
In 1982, Brian Mathew proposed a system that classified crocuses by ‘Series’ including such fancy names as Baytopi, Scardici and Longiflori, to name only a few. Still, those types available for commercial purchase today generally fall into three categories: Species (Snow) crocuses, Giant Dutch crocuses and the Fall-blooming Saffron crocuses.
SPECIES (SNOW) CROCUSES
Species, or Snow crocuses (Crocus chrysanthus) flower in the late winter to early spring, well before the larger Dutch varieties. Measuring around 3-4 inches tall, they’re smaller in size than their Dutch cousins, but they produce more flowers.
Great varieties to try:
Crocus Tommasinianus, also known as the woodland crocus, has pale lavender to reddish-purple goblet-shaped flowers with white throats. The petals appear almost silvery in certain lights. This variety also goes by the name ‘Tommies’.
Romance produces butter yellow flowers with just a hint of orange. This is a truly tiny variety measuring around 2 to 3 inches.
C. ‘Romance’/Photo: steshs for shutterstock.com
Tricolor has a bright orange base with violet-blue petals divided by a white band.
C. ‘Tricolor’/Photo: Erkki Makkonen for shutterstock.com
Blue Pearl has sky blue petals with creamy white insides. If this isn’t the essence of spring, what is?
C. ‘Blue Pearl’/Photo: Erkki Makkonen for shutterstock.com
Ard Schenk has classic white blooms, but unlike other all-white varieties, its golden center and orange anthers make it a standout .
C. ‘Ard Schenk’/Photo: Marinodenisenko for shutterstock.com
GIANT DUTCH CROCUSES
Dutch crocuses (Crocus vernus) have large, cup-shaped blooms. At 4-6” tall, they are taller than the snow species. Often sold as ‘mixed’., their cultivars are typically white, lilac or purple and white striped. They bloom in early spring, usually after the snow species.
Great varieties to try:
Flower Record bears large, cup-shaped purple blooms with an orange stamen. This type blooms for about 3 weeks in early spring.
C. ‘Flower Record’/Photo: shutterstock.com
Pickwick is a distinctive striped variety with alternating pale and dark lilac petals and a bright orange style. This variety blooms in early April around the time of the first daffodils.
C. ‘Pickwick’/Photo: steshs for shutterstock.com
Golden Yellow is a a vigorous, clump-forming variety with golden yellow petals. It looks great with purples.
C. ‘Golden Yellow’/Photo: Marinodenisenko for shutterstock.com
Saffron crocuses (Crocus sativas) bloom in the late fall and produce lilac flowers with dark purple veins. Their foliage is barely visible. And yes, you can harvest saffron from the long orange stamens.
C. sativas/Photo: Gts for shutterstock.com
Plant saffron crocuses in the late summer. They like lots of sun and gritty soil with good drainage. The hotter the summer the better.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
Dividing your crocuses helps to increase their vigor. Divide the corms every four or five years after the foliage starts to wither. Lift and separate them, discarding the mother corm. Then replant before the ground freezes.
You can plant the corms in sun or part shade. Hardy to zones 3-8, they need a cold winter to bloom properly. Never plant crocuses in wet or soggy soil, which can cause the corms to rot.
As with all spring flowering bulbs, it’s important to leave the foliage on until it yellows. The plants store their energy in the leaves for the following year.