The crocuses are blooming in southwestern British Columbia as I write this article. What a beautiful sign of spring! The flowers aren’t the first sign of the season in this part of the world, but they’re the most colourful. They grow in gardens and as escapees on patches of land outside of gardens. The unexpected sight of crocuses beside a trail is a lovely surprise.
In addition to providing enjoyment, some crocuses affect human lives in other ways. One species produces the exotic and expensive spice known as saffron. Another plant referred to as a crocus produces colchicine, a potentially poisonous chemical that has medicinal uses, including the treatment of gout.
Plant breeding techniques have produced a wide variety of crocuses. Most have cup-shaped flowers, but some produce star-shaped ones instead. The flowers may be purple, blue, lavender, pink, orange, yellow, red, or white in colour. My favourite types are the striped varieties.
Crocuses belong to the genus Crocus, which is part ofthe iris family. They are native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa but grow in many other parts of the world as well. They have beautiful and often colourful flowers.
Cultivated crocuses can be grown both outdoors in gardens and indoors in containers. The flowers bloom in the winter, spring, or autumn, depending on the species. Some outdoor flowers appear even while there is snow on the ground. The plants have long and narrow leaves which generally have a white line running down their middle.
A crocus is a perennial. The dormant, underground form of the plant is a corm, which produces new leaves and flowers when environmental conditions are suitable.
The part of a crocus that’s planted is often called a bulb, but technically it’s a corm. Both bulbs and corms are generally rounded and firm structures that develop underground and store food for the plant. They both have the ability to produce new leaves, stems, and flowers.
Despite their similar functions, there are differences between bulbs and corms. The most noticeable one is that bulbs—such as onions—consist of a series of layers, or scales. Corms are one solid unit with no layers.
The crocuses that many people plant in their garden belong to a range of species and subspecies in the genus Crocus. The ones in garden stores and catalogues may be labelled with their scientific name, but the cultivars are often identified by lovely descriptive names such as blue pearl, orange monarch, and ruby giant snow crocus.
Crocuses grow in full sun or partial shade and require well-drained soil. The corm should be planted in the fall before the first frost. It should be placed three to four inches deep in the soil with the flat side down and the pointed side up. If it’s planted in a group, it should be placed two to four inches away from its nearest neighbour.
The spice known as saffron is produced from an autumn-flowering plant with the scientific name Crocus sativus. Thecommon name of this plant is saffron crocus. The saffron crocus is unknown in the wild. It’s thought to have been developed by selective breeding of other crocuses that do exist in the wild. It’s believed to have originated in Greece, or possibly in Southwest Asia. Saffron has been harvested and used since ancient times.
Some people grow the saffron crocus in their garden and enjoy the splash of colour that it produces in the fall. The flowers are purple, blue, pink, or white. They have yellow stamens and three long, red stigmas branching from a single yellow style. The flowers are sterile, however. Propagation has to be carried out by corms instead of by pollination and fruit development. The corm can be divided to make new corms.
Saffronis appreciated for its flavour, aroma, and colour. It’s used as a fabric dye as well as a spice and may have medicinal benefits. The stigmas are generally picked by hand, which makes producing saffron a very labour-intensive endeavour. It also makes the spice very expensive. In fact, it’s often said to be the most expensive spice in the world. Only a small amount is needed to flavour food, however.
Once the stigmas are collected, they’re dried. They are sold as threads or are ground into a powder first. The dried stigmas are red, but the spice turns yellow when added to food. Some people add the stigmas to water before using them, creating an infusion sometimes known as saffron water.
I’ve never tried saffron myself, but from what I’ve read, people either love it or hate it. It apparently has a complex taste that seems to be perceived differently by different people. The flavour depends on the quality of the spice and its freshness as well as on an individual’s taste buds. In addition, the spice needs to be used in very small quantities or it can be overwhelming.
Saffron is very popular in some cuisines, including traditional Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Indian, and Spanish ones. The spice is used to flavour bouillabaisse, curry, paella and other rice dishes, beverages, ice cream, puddings, and baked goods.
The autumn crocus is another plant with lovely flowers. It doesn’t belong to the genus Crocus, however, even though its flowers look superficially similar to those of crocuses and its common name is similar. The scientific name of the autumn crocus is Colchicum autumnale. True crocuses belong to the iris family, but the autumn crocus belongs to the lily family.
One of the alternate names for the autumn crocus is “naked ladies”. This name refers to the fact that the flowers are present without any leaves, as can be seen in the photos above and below. The leaves are visible in the spring and summer, but not in the fall when the flower blooms. True crocuses have long, narrow leaves that are present at the same time as the flowers. Another distinguishing feature is that an autumn crocus flower has six stamens while a true crocus flower has only three. In addition, the corms of autumn crocus have a waxy surface, while those of a true crocus have a dry, papery surface.
Despite its dangers, an autumn crocus that is treated with respect can be a lovely garden plant. The plant blooms in September. The flowers generally have a pink or blue-pink colour but may sometimes be white. The plant typically grows in damp meadows in the wild and is also known as the meadow saffron. It’s native to Eurasia, but like true crocuses it’s grown in many other parts of the world.
The autumn crocus contains poisonous alkaloids. All parts of the plant are toxic, but the toxins are most concentrated in the corm. The main poison in the plant is colchicine. At high concentrations colchicine is dangerous and even deadly. At low doses, it has medicinal benefits.
Colchicine is a prescribed medication that is used to treat gout attacks. Gout is also known as gouty arthritis because it affects joints, like other types of arthritis. The disorder is caused by excess uric acid in the blood. The acid causes inflammation in the joints. The symptoms of this inflammation include redness, heat, swelling, and pain. A gout attack appears suddenly, lasts for hours or days, and is often very painful. It frequently affects the big toe
Colchicine was isolated from autumn crocus in 1820. Long before this time the plant was used medicinally for health problems, including gout. Its use was risky, however. Sometimes too much was prescribed and the patient died.
Colchicine in medicinal doses can relieve the pain and inflammation of gout and in general seems to work well. It’s used to prevent gout attacks as well as to treat them. It may be especially useful for patients who can’t take NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as aspirin. Colchicine isn’t classified as a pain reliever, although it can indirectly reduce or eliminate pain. A common brand name of the drug is Colcrys.
It isn’t completely understood how colchicine relieves gout. It is known that it inhibits mitosis. This is the process of chromosome duplication that takes place before a cell divides to make two daughter cells. Mitosis enables each daughter cell to have a complete set of chromosomes.
Colchicine’s ability to inhibit mitosis enables it to interfere with the activity and division of white blood cells that are involved in the inflammatory process. Unfortunately, colchicine inhibits other cells that undergo mitosis, too, so it’s very important to take the correct dose. Colchicine is also thought to reduce histamine secretion. Histamine is one of the chemicals involved in inflammation.
Colchicine may cause side effects. The most common ones include nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhea. Sometimes more serious ones may occur, such as:
- muscle pain
- unusual bleeding
- sore throat, fever, and chills
- grey lips, tongue, or palms
If the latter symptoms develop or if any of the symptoms are serious, a doctor should be consulted. The effects can arise due to a colchicine overdose as well as a side effect of a normal dose.
Other signs of a toxic dose of colchicine include slowed breathing and slowed heartbeat. In severe poisoning there may be low blood pressure and kidney and liver failure. In very severe cases, the heart may stop beating. It’s important that the medication is stored out of the way of children and pets.
Flowering plants like crocuses can add great beauty and enjoyment to our lives. The foods, spices, and medicines provided by these plants are additional benefits of their presence on Earth and are very important reasons to protect their existence. Like all medications, medicines from plants are chemicals that should be treated with care. They can be wonderfully helpful when they’re used correctly, however.
- Seasonal plant toxicity from ASPCA (ASPCA says that spring crocus is non-toxic to dogs and cats but autumn crocus is extremely toxic.)
- Growing crocus flowers from Better Homes and Gardens
- Saffron facts from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse
- Saffron compared with memantine in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease from the NIH (National Institutes of Health)
- Saffron compared to a placebo in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease from the NIH
- Colchicine information from the U.S. National Library of Medicine