I’m in search of the perfect companion for my colchicums.  They’ve been in flower since the last week of Feb and are looking distinctly lonely (image above).

The trouble is, they flower without any foliage.  They share this odd strategy with several other late summer/early autumn flowering bulbs, such as the belladonna lilies and true autumn-flowering species of crocus which carry their leaves over spring when there’s decent soil moisture, but flower in late summer/autumn (and thus presumably avoid the high-traffic spring-flowering zones, when loads of plants are competing for the attention of pollinators).

This doesn’t present a challenge to growing them, as such.  It only makes them difficult to place effectively in the garden.  They can look a bit odd, and don’t benefit visually from being surrounded by a sea of bare soil when in flower.

I confess I hadn’t considered the potential for companions until seeing a pic about 25 years ago in Christopher Lloyd’s The Year at Great Dixter, showing the flowers poking through a carpet of the felted grey leaves of Helichrysum petiolare.  Stunning.

(If you don’t know what the Helichrysum looks like, see a pic here. None of it in combo with the colchicums, unfortunately).

Finding a good companion isn’t easy.  The colchicum has big, juicy, coarse leaves for months over spring, and overshadows, weakens, and usually kills anything in its immediate vicinity.  The companion, therefore, must come into leaf exceptionally late so as to not mind this, or else be planted each year after the foliage of the colchicum fades.  That’s what CL did with his Helichrysum.  Young plants would be tickled in around the bulbs in early summer, then would rapidly and conveniently fill the space, and eventually provide a lovely background when the flowers emerged.

Colchicums at The Butchart Gardens, Victoria, Canada, flowering in a mossy carpet – much better than the above, but with potential to be better still.

So why not just copy the idea?  I’ve never understood why this should be, but my observation is that the Helichrysum tends to grow nearly prostrate in the UK, but seems to want to grow upwards here.  Perhaps we have different varieties, or maybe its something to do with the climate.  All I know is that if I tried the same combo here, the colchicum flowers would be trying to puncture through a solid shrub at least .5m in height by late summer.  It simply wouldn’t work.

This year I decided I’d try that brilliant silver form of Dichondra (D. ‘Silver Falls’.  Check it out here) as an undercarpet.  It didn’t quite work, as the Dichondra is simply not cut out for the desert conditions that this summer applied.  It survived, but never spread enough to get between the bulbs.  But I suspect that it would also have failed visually, as the flowers of the colchicum are a bit on the pale side, and the silver foliage didn’t really make them sing.  (There was enough of the silver nearby that if I squinted and lined them up carefully, I could imagine the overlap)

Colchicums in a spectacularly neglected part of a client’s garden. All those old, dead weeds help hold up the flowers, and provide a setting that’s curiously better than bare soil. Still, it’s not quite something to aim for

So now I’m thinking that I want a deep purple carpet instead.  I’m therefore considering using Sedum ‘Bertram Anderson’ (Check it out here).  I’ll have to plant it far enough away that it’s not composted by the colchicum foliage each spring, or else plant fresh cuttings of the sedum around the bulbs every year in early summer.  The advantage of the latter is that the Sedum may then not make it into flower – it’s only the leaves I’m after.  Sounds like a lot of work, but I’ll give it a go.

Anyway, you can see the challenge.  Any ideas?


  1. Hi Michael. I agree, it’s a tricky issue. I think I’ve sort of solved it by using Parthenocissus sikkimensis. The dark green is a wonderful backdrop to the colchicums and the emergent leaves do no damage whatsoever to this low, mat forming ground cover. The even nicer bit is it seems to be keeping the snails away too. I’ve also got P. sikkimensis growing in and around Helichrysum petiolare ‘Limelight’ in another spot to great effect. All are growing in our little woodland underneath old established Atlas cedar and Deodar plus a Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Cripsii’. I hope this helps. Regards Helen C, Davaar Leura NSW

    1. That hadn’t, and wouldn’t have, occurred to me Helen. But I can imagine how good it would look. I’m trawling back through my memory, trying to recall if Parthenocissus sikkimensis is sufficiently frost (and sun) hardy to work in my spot. Obviously your spot is neither too sunny for the Parthenoscissus, not too shady for the colchicums. I’m always tempted by it, on the odd occasion when I see it for sale.

    2. It is an odd plant 🙂 – one of the grumpy old men of the plant world. Sulks if it gets snow or too much sun. But it doesn’t seem to die back and starts regrowth as soon as the weather improves. Its not the quickest either. We put one plant in 12 years ago (in drought) and by careful propagation have now got an area roughly 30m2 under cover.

  2. I was going to suggest sedum ‘Hidakense’. Bit Betram Andersonish in habit, but a fabulous light pink.

    Got one in a pot that exists as a little neglecterino and is as tough as a very tough thing. I think it may put up with the overshadowing from C and it’s leaves.

    1. I reckon it must be 15 years since I last laid eyes on Hidakense. All these things I’ve got to re-own.
      I’d thought I’d probably have to replant ‘BA’ each year after the colchicum foliage faded, as all these Sedums bulk up so early in the season that they’re no good for interplangting with spring bulbs, even. The question, of course, boils down to recovery times. Whatever was permanently planted around the colchicums would suffer from the competition – it’s just a matter of whether they could recover sufficiently to look good over summer, and then brilliant when hosting the colchicum blooms.

  3. Depends where they are, if there’s not much else there you could try Euphorbia cyparissias Fens Ruby. It is late coming into leaf in spring and by Feb when the Colchicums are flowering it is looking fabulous. It is pretty invasive though, wouldn’t care if half of it got smothered by foliage. I have it isolated in a long bed with Sedums and Purple leaf Eucomis lilies which all hold their own. Could be a bit boring in Winter though.

    1. Great idea, Sidonie. I love Euphorbia cyparissias, both in its regular form, and ‘Fens Ruby’. And I think I’m prepared to ‘release’ it into that part of the garden.
      Winter boringness isn’t a problem – any of the other solutions I’ve looked at would be as bad..

  4. i have a similar dilemma with Sternbergia lutea , a strident yellow as the name suggests. They flower following the Colchicums . Somehow I have no objection to their emergence out of baked, inhospitable granitic sand. It seems fitting for a tough South African fellow. Colchicums need a gentler garden context.
    My Colchicums are flowering beneath the flowers of Agapanthus inapertus hollandii Lynberg. it feels like they are trying to communicate ,the soft milky blue pendulous aggie drooping towards the open chalices of the colchicums. It doesn’t solve your problem but takes your eye off the ground.

    1. I totally agree with your thoughts on sternbergias. They somehow seem right all on their own. I reckon that it’s something to do with their stocky, muscular character, and possibly the confidence of their colour. They’re short, squat and have visibly strong stems. They look like they can hold their own. Colchicums always look like they could do with physical support, and feel painfully frail on their own.
      As for the serving suggestion for colchicums, I like your lateral approach… lifting your gaze.

  5. It is hard to find really flat groundcovers at this time of year. I have Sedum mexicanum ‘Goldmound’ which stays low and spreads fast. It isn’t flowering now, but the foliage is very bright, so it would be a contrast rather than a harmony. Maybe too strident? Although I have it beside Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and love it there.

    1. Yeah, I reckon the gold might upstage the mauve, but how good would it be with one of the white Colchicums? I meant to write in the main post that while Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ mightn’t work with the more insipid mauves, it would also be fabulous with white colchicums. I’m guessing that your use of the word ‘beside’ in relation to Geranium ‘Rozanne’ is critical here, Lyn. What height does it reach for you this time of year? I must get hold of some…of always liked it but have always been disappointed with the performance of geraniums in Aus, and haven’t bothered to try it.

      Partly what I loved about the Dixter solution was that it wasn’t entirely flat – it must have been 7 – 10 cm deep at least by the time it became a host to the colchicum flowers, which then nestled in amongst it.

    2. White Colchicums would look great – might try that myself. I love Geranium ‘Rozanne.’ It’s the only Geranium I grow, as I too have been disappointed with the others. It’s in clay soil that dries out in summer but it just keeps flowering forever and the flowers are large, too. It reaches 15cm for me on the ground, but will climb a little way into shrubs.

    3. I remember lusting over it back in the days when it was lurking here and there, but not ‘officially’ quarantined and introduced. There seemed to be some stalemate over permission for it to be sold here. By the time it was available my infatuation had faded. But given what you say about its tolerances, I’ve gotta give it a go. And scurrying a little way up shrubs…there’s so many places I could do with that.

  6. Humbly propose Thymus longicaulis ‘ Cretan Thyme’ as a jolly good performer in the companion/coverage stakes. It doesn’t flower at the same time to cause your delightful Colchicums to disappear amongst the Thyme’s pale pink mist in Spring, but will be a verdant deep green contrasty backdrop. Mine originally sourced from Lambley and have adored it’s habit ever since it found it’s place in our garden.

    1. I can’t help but be concerned about using something woody – a sub-shrub. I can’t imagine how it would recover from the early season swamping.
      But I’m so used to being proven wrong, that I’d happily give it a go (though when I think about it, the absolute easiest solution was when I had the colchicums planted on the edge of the path in my gravel garden. They looked great flowering straight out of the gravel. And when the dying foliage was cut away in summer, the path just widened for a few months. Ridiculously easy!)

  7. Hi Michael, congrats on your book. Couple of thoughts – I have used Artemisia genipi and schmidtiana as excellent silver ground covers with colchicum. I also agree with JenniP Thymus longicaulis, especially ssp. chaubardii is a fantastically versatile plant and would be great for the job. I have no problem with using some of the ground-hugging camapanulas, especially the white form C. isophylla and C. cochlearifolia – they can survive a bit of seasonal smothering. Of course it all depends on what colchicums one is growing: byzantium is a bit of a brute but speciosum and neapolitanum have more upright, slender leaves, as does the cultivar “The Giant”. Cheers, M

    1. Well Marcus. There’s no opinion I’d respect more than yours on the plants that would work both visually and physically in these tricky contexts. I don’t know Artemisia genipi but am a long-term fan of A. schmidtiana.
      And that info on the variation in leaf width amongst Colchicums is gold. Wish all that stuff was recorded somewhere.
      For anyone else reading this – listen to this guy!

  8. Michael,
    I grow colchicums through Ajuga reptans. I grow both the dark green and burgundy forms, both colors work with the lilac blooms, I’m not sure I which I like better. I also grow them through ordinary garden violets.
    Sternbergias would look good growing through the silver Dichondra.

    1. Clearly you’re planting your colchicums in cooler, damper, shadier conditions that I do. My thoughts ran in a quick two step process thus: I wonder why I don’t also grow them in shade, and always think of them as sun loving?….um.. that would be because I don’t have any shade.
      When I do get some, I’m going to try this

  9. Hi Michael and Anita, I’d like to add something on the habitats of wild colchicums. I thought, like you, that they grew on dry sunny banks or open meadows. In fact most species, with the exception of some of the smaller autumn and spring flowering species, enjoy cooler, moister conditons, often in the shade of river banks, along water courses and in mountain soaks and springs. I have actually seen them growing in the boulder-strewn beds of seasonally flowing streams! So yes they are versatile plants that actually PREFER moisturer conditions than we Australian gardeners give them.
    Cheers, Marcus

  10. Michael,on page 103 of this month’s Gardens Illustrated there’s a pic of black mondo with Hakonechloa macra- my second thought ( after”why haven’t I thought of that…?) was your colchicums and how good they’d look poking through those two, given that they’d apparently appreciate the shade…

    1. Yeah, I really must test out this shade-loving aspect of colchicums. It just seems so counterintuitive. And I agree that the flowers would be magic poking through the foliage of black mondo – but the big question is whether the mondo would cope with great, floppy foliage dagging about all over it in spring and early summer. As Marcus points out, it would depend on how broad the leaves of the chosen colchicum were, and how much shade they cast.

  11. I haven’t tried it yet, but I reckon Baby’s Tears, Soleirolia soleirolii (it does have a new botanical name that I can’t quite remember right now) would be compatible. The most appealing thing about colchicums to me is their stems – so tall and fragile-looking, almost transparent when backlit. This mat forming groundcover would set them off to perfection. And Soleirolia is definitely much more robust thatn you would think looking at it. Especially in the shade – when you get some of it, that is!

  12. Personally, I love to see a bit of surprise color in the garden but then mine are covered by ajuga plants. In the spring (here) the ajuga blooms and then later in the fall, the colchicums bloom from underneath the ajuga. All accidentally planted.

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