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Paint the autumn garden in vivid hues with fall-blooming crocus and autumn crocus. No, that wasn’t a typo. Nope, not a redundancy either. Fall-blooming crocus and autumn crocus are two different plants with the same name. But don’t let that deter you. These little beauties erupt with color, invigorating the autumn garden as other plants prepare for winter’s sleep.
The world of plant names is riddled with homonyms – that is two different plants sharing the same name. When you hear the word “marigold” do you think of the native, sunny yellow marsh marigold or the papery bedding plant (tagetes) your grandmother set around the garden? Depending on where you live the name “bluebell” may refer to a native spring perennial, a Mediterranean bulb, or a desert annual. No wonder plant nerds use scientific names.
When it comes to bulbs, the name “crocus” is often used to describe two unrelated plants: colchicum, often called autumn crocus, is a lily relative, while true crocuses belong to the iris family. The true crocuses include the popular spring-blooming varieties that mark winter’s end, fall-blooming species, and the saffron crocus used in cooking.
So why do they share the same name? Because looks can be deceiving. Both bulbs produce large, chalice-like blooms in shades of lilac, pink, violet, and white. And both include varieties that bloom in autumn as the summer garden fades. Fortunately, the two plants share similar needs, so even in the case of mistaken identity gardeners have found success. Still, American Meadows uses the proper name colchicum to avoid confusion.
While flowers of the two plants look similar, there are some notable differences between the two groups.
Bulbs: Both true crocus and colchicum grow from corms, not true bulbs. The corms of colchicum tend to be larger than crocus. As such, they have different planting requirements. The larger colchicums are planted at a depth of 4 to 6 inches, with an equal spacing, or about 4 plants per square foot. Crocus corms are planted at only 2 to 3 inches deep and spaced 2 to 3 inches apart, for about 12 corms per square foot.
Foliage: Colchicum flowers appear naked, that is the blooms emerge separate from the foliage. Colchicum leaves appear in spring and are large and floppy, looking quite at home among hostas. Fall-blooming crocus has narrow, grass-like foliage that appears either in autumn or in the spring, depending on the species. Spring-blooming varieties flower at the same time foliage emerges.
Flowers: The flowers of colchicum are typically larger than those of crocus and each corm produces 5 to 10 stalks each bearing a single flower. These showy blooms grab your attention from across the garden. Crocus blooms are daintier with fewer blooms per corm, but have lovely detail when viewed up close. The two groups bloom September through November, with some crocus varieties blooming as late as December.
Hardiness: With the exception of the saffron crocus, colchicum tend to tolerate colder winter temperatures (Zones 4-10) than fall-blooming crocus (Zones 6-10). Saffron crocus is hardy to zone 4.
Both colchicum and crocus benefit from rich, well-drained soils. Drainage is particularly important during the summer months when bulbs are dormant, which is also the time most gardeners irrigate beds. Poor drainage can lead to rotting bulbs. Rock and herb gardens make ideal planting sites, as do raised beds and perennial borders. Planting corms on berms and mounds can help improve drainage in planting beds that are not raised.
Tuck groups of bulbs in pockets to add fall color to perennial beds or try planting the corms among low-growing groundcovers such as thyme or creeping jenny. The showy blooms will easily push through the low canopy and light mulch layers.
Colchicum and crocus naturalize well in meadows or woodland edges, however, they must not be mowed until the foliage dies back. Plant in large drifts for a natural appearance. Colchicum is more tolerant of partial shade, while crocus prefers sunny locations. Avoid planting in locations where the flowers will be hidden by falling leaves in autumn.
Colchicum and crocus can also be planted in containers for stunning autumn displays or forced indoors for winter color.
Colchicum and fall-blooming crocus corms are planted much earlier than spring-blooming bulbs. Corms are shipped in August and should be planted as soon as they arrive. Use spacing and planting depth specifications outlined on the plant label, as corm size varies across varieties. Water the corms after planting to settle soil and remove air pockets, then do not water again until emergence. Plants will emerge and bloom within a few weeks and the flowers will last for several weeks.
New corms are formed each year on top of the old ones, which allows clumps to increase in size. Both colchicum and crocus are very long-lived and benefit from dividing regularly. Lift and divide the corms every two to three years after foliage fades.