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What is a Crocus?

Saffron from crocus sativus.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 10 July 2014
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Crocus is a large genus of plants in the iris family. These plants reproduce using corms, structures similar in nature to bulbs and rhizomes, and they are probably most famous for their early blooming habit. The appearance of crocuses marks the end of winter in many communities, with these showy and small bulbs appearing as early as a month after the winter solstice in some regions of the world. In addition to being welcome guests in the garden, crocuses are also very easy to grow, making them very popular with gardeners.

The leaves of the crocus are grass-like, typically marked with a pale stripe which runs down the center of the leaf. The flowers come in an array of colors including white, purple, and yellow, with some flowers being bicolored or variegated. Typically, the flowers form deep trumpets, with bright yellow stamens. The bright color often stands out vividly in the garden, since most other foliage is dormant when crocuses start blooming.

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One species of crocus, C. sativus, is used in the production of saffron, a well-known Middle Eastern spice. Other crocus varietals may not produce spices, but they are still quite lovely. Gardeners should note that, aside from the saffron crocus, the stigmas are usually toxic, and should not be consumed. Crocuses prefer full sun and well drained soil, but beyond that, they will tolerate almost any conditions. Ideally, the bulbs should be divided every three to five years, although they will happily multiply themselves without dividing until they become densely overcrowded.

People who want to grow crocuses should plant them in the fall, so that they have a chance to overwinter and get used to the climate. Many people mulch crocuses to protect them in extremely cold climates, although crocuses can be seen growing up through coatings of snow and ice, illustrating the fact that mulch is not strictly necessary. Because the blooms are small, it is a good idea to plant the corms near pathways or close to a house, so that they can be readily seen when they start to open up in the late winter.

Crocuses grow natively in Europe, Africa, and Asia. People have been cultivating them since the Bronze Age, making them one of the oldest ornamental flowers under continuous cultivation. Many of the crocuses available for modern gardeners are Dutch cultivars, thanks to centuries of Dutch domination of the bulb, rhizome, and corm industries. Garden suppliers usually stock crocuses, and they can also be ordered by mail, or requested from fellow gardeners when they divide their corms.

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