This article discusses bulbs: the history, uses and occasionally the philosophy that surround the humble bulb.
Crocus are one of the first flowers to form in spring, a herald that warmer weather is on its way. They have a huge variation, from one-colour large flowered crocus to the smaller species crocus that often have multi-coloured flowers. They are a cheap versatile bulb to grow, and fill up corners well, with their short height making them an excellent companion plant to the larger Narcissi and Tulips, especially as with the huge range of colours they are easy to match.
Crocus have a fair spread of flowering times and their leaves and flowers are waxy, protecting them from the frost. This means if there is a temporary thaw in the winter, they will generally not suffer too much damage if there is a sudden frost.
There are also 'Autumn Crocus' like Colchicum which are actually not crocus but can flower before being planted! Crocus Sativus is the saffron crocus which is a true autumn crocus and produces the most expensive spice in the world!
Saffron Crocus produces flowers before the leaves. The deep red stigma are the saffron strands and have a very short harvesting time for a good yield.
Given how little saffron is produced, you can see why it's so expensive!
Short history of Saffron
Believed native to the Mediterranean area, Asia Minor, and Iran, the saffron crocus has long been cultivated in Iran and Kashmir and is supposed to have been introduced into Cathay by the Mongol invasion. It is mentioned in the Chinese materia medica (Pun tsaou, 1552–78). In early times, however, the chief seat of cultivation was in Cilicia, in Asia Minor. It was cultivated by the Arabs in Spain about 961 and is mentioned in an English leechbook, or healing manual, of the 10th century but may have disappeared from western Europe until reintroduced by the crusaders. During various periods, saffron has been worth much more than its weight in gold; it is still the most expensive spice in the world. A golden-coloured, water-soluble fabric dye was distilled from saffron stigmas in India in ancient times. Shortly after Buddha died, his priests made saffron the official colour for their robes. The dye has been used for royal garments in several cultures. Saffron is named among the sweet-smelling herbs in Song of Solomon 4:14. As a perfume, saffron was strewn in Greek and Roman halls, courts, theatres, and baths; it became especially associated with the hetairai, a professional class of Greek courtesans. The streets of Rome were sprinkled with saffron when Nero made his entry into the city.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica
Crocus should be planted about 10cm deep, interestingly they form corms every year, on top of the exhausted remnant of the previous year's growth, In soft soil this can lead to them pushing up, but it's rare and if this happens then just push them down again. They appreciate sunny well drained soil that is not too rich so underneath a deciduous shrub (or in a well lit area) is ideal and will help protect them from a damp summer.
Many crocus naturalise prolifically from seed, this can cause them to be weeds in some borders, however if this is a problem it is a simple matter to dead-head them. Crocus look after themselves well enough that you can generally plant and forget them until they appear.