Monday, February 21, 2011

Crocus, crocuses, croci

The carpet of crocuses by our gate this morning

There's something pretty magical about the appearance of crocuses - or should that be croci? - at this time of the year. I always get taken by surprise. They seem to emerge almost overnight straight from the soil. OK, most species actually have a cluster of leaves, but they're so fine and grass-like they usually go unnoticed. And then, just a couple of warm days and it's like a switch has been flipped .... wow. The synchrony is as amazing as the display.

It's a bit of a cliche to to say the crocus flowering marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring - and with February still a week or more to run, experience tells us there's plenty of time for another spell of wintry weather - but the joyous colour of the crocus is a clear promise of what's to come.

The crocus seems so at home semi-naturalised that it's tempting to imagine it must be native, but actually the native home of the 80 or so crocus species is centred on Turkey and the Balkans, but spreads out to Morocco, the Alps, Western China and Poland at its edges. Actually it's only a limited number of species that are happy in our wet climate with Crocus vernus and its large flowered hybrids raised in Holland the most successful.

The name Crocus is derived from the Greek Krokos which in turn is probably derived from the Arabic kurkum, the word for saffron. This is a reminder that one Crocus species - an autumn flowering one - is the source of the world's most valuable spice by weight. It takes 50 to 100,000 flowers to produce one pound of dried saffron worth £500 or more!