PLANT OF THE WEEK #91: Crocus speciosus 'Oxonian'

Decades ago my gardening friends and I attended a lecture given by the renowned Irish gardener Helen Dillon. To be frank I remember little of that event except one outlandish statement declared by Helen that has perhaps modelled my aspirations in my own garden.  

Helen declared that “Crocus tommasinianus is the worst weed in my garden”. It seemed almost blasphemous.

How can such a fragile winter jewel with no bad traits except for its abundance be given such a label? Obviously one gardeners weed is another’s delight! Maybe Helen hasn’t encountered some of my ferocious foes – panic veldt grass, couch, sorrel, Oxalis pes-caprae, even Pentaglottis sempervirens to name but a few vexatious intruders.

Crocus speciosus ‘Oxonian’ with Verbena rigida and Oxalis lobata

Bulbs have always been one of my prime preoccupations in the garden . Indeed most of my planting is organised around what is underground not above ground. There is not one month of the year without evidence of their subterranean force. Yet I find room for more and more and those that self sow are a blessing. Crocus speciosus “Oxonian” is one such, now flowering in swathes where it feels comfortable, drifting in and among late flowering perennials and other bulbs.

Some bulbs are inclined or indeed need to be sole occupiers of a space. Bluebells self sow prodigiously in a cool climate and though we love those dreamy expanses under beech trees in a small garden their robust foliage smothers any less competitive neighbours and persists until late spring.  Nerines and Belladonnas need their own uncluttered space in the garden, requiring a summer bake.

Other bulbs coexist harmoniously amongst other plantings adding spontaneity and a completely unpredictable layer.  I am happy to say Crocus tommasinianus has done that here, and though I have only gardened here for 35 years I am pretty sure I will never call it a weed. 

Nor will I label Crocus speciosus ‘Oxonian’ as a weed . From memory I bought three bulbs from Marcus Harvey (of Hill View Rare Plants) in the early 90’s. Now large drifts flower beneath the hovering heads of Verbena ‘Homestead Purple’, amongst colchicums and the rich dark purple foliage of Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’ and amongst the mass of Cyclamen hederifolium and Cyclamen graecum that have also naturalised – happily creating little cameos of spontaneity that no hand of man could achieve. Is that a rags to riches story?

Crocuses retire gracefully after their performance, with no bulky foliage nor persistent seed heads.  If I were to voice one complaint it is that their efforts are all to brief. But we forgive butterflies for that trait.

Crocus speciosus ‘Oxonian’ with colchicums and Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’

Cathy Newing gardens in Macedon, Victoria, with warm dry summers and cool to cold, damp winters. Do you grow this crocus? If so, we’d love to hear where you are, for the benefit of others who may long to.

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