Drifts of crocuses in flower amid clumps of hellebores at RHS Wisley

It seems odd to think that once upon a time, saffron was widely grown as a crop in Britain. Place names such as Saffron Walden and even Croydon (a corruption of Croh Denu, the Old English for “crocus valley”) bear testament to the fact that in the Middle Ages, England was the world’s biggest saffron producer.
Today we think of saffron as an exotic - and expensive - spice. Ounce for ounce, it costs more than gold, and although much of the saffron we buy in the supermarket is labelled “Spanish saffron”, it is probably grown in Iran, which now produces just over 90 per cent of the world’s crop.
Saffron has to be harvested by hand, and such a labour-intensive process became uneconomic in the UK centuries ago. Each flower has three thread-like stigma, and for every 1lb (450g) of dry saffron you need 50,000–75,000 flowers.
We may not produce saffron commercially any more, but you only have to look at parks and gardens at this time of year to see that many different species of crocus thrive in southern England. 
From a beekeeping point of view, crocuses are the perfect flowers. They are specifically designed to attract bees and moths, so they have nice open flowers that give easy access to pollen and nectar. They flower early in the year, but the flowers only open in good weather - when bees are more likely to be flying - which means the blooms don’t get trashed by wind and rain.
Saffron crocuses flower in autumn, but the earliest spring-flowering species is Crocus tommasinianus, a native of the Balkans, with delicate purple flowers. “Tommies” look far too fragile to be up and about in February, but they are as tough as the proverbial old boots. ‘Ruby Giant’ and ‘Whitewell Purple’ are two forms that are widely available.
The best thing about Tommies, however, is that they are relatively squirrel-resistant. I’d always wondered why my crocuses survived, despite having a garden full of squirrels, and I assumed it was because they were planted quite deeply, under a layer of turf. Apparently, Crocus tommasianus corms contain high levels of an alkaloid that squirrels don’t like, which makes me wonder whether their reputation for naturalising freely in the garden is less to do with any especial vigour and more to do with the fact that squirrels don’t dig them up.
Another of my favourites is ‘Firefly’, one of the Crocus sieberi cultivars. These are also early performers - fantastic if you want to provide flowers for bees venturing out on mild days - and they also have lilac flowers, but with the striking golden-orange throat that characterises C. sieberi. ‘Tricolor’ is another attractive variety.
I also have a soft spot for the Crocus chrysanthus cultivars, such as ‘Snow Bunting’, ‘Zwanenburg Bronze’, ‘Blue Pearl’ or ‘Zenith’, a newer introduction. Some of these have been around for decades but you tend to have to buy them as bulbs, rather than as spring bedding in the garden centres.

                                                           'Zenith' in the alpine house at RHS Wisley

If you go to the average garden centre, you would be forgiven for thinking that the only crocuses in existence are a handful of Dutch hybrids – ‘Pickwick’, ‘Jeanne d’Arc’, ‘Remembrance’ and so on. They are alleged to be tougher, with much bigger flowers, and they bloom about two or three weeks later. Most of them date back to the Twenties and Thirties, so in terms of reliability, they have a good record.
I agree they have bigger flowers, and they flower later, but I would argue that these are not particularly desirable attributes, especially if you are desperate to start cutting the grass in spring. In the most miserable month of the year you want something that flowers sooner rather than later and I prefer the graceful smaller blooms. 
Crocuses like full sun and hate soil that is permanently damp or water-logged. A sunny corner of a lawn is perfect, or beneath an ornamental tree such as a flowering cherry. By the time the cherry comes into leaf and starts shading out the crocuses, they will have gone over.
Finally, the plural. Croci or crocuses? I’m always astonished that anyone spends time wondering about this, but for those who do, both are correct, according to the dictionary. If you want to be really purist about it, use crocuses, because “croci” – like octopi or cacti – is a bit of a mongrel word. It uses the Latin masculine plural for what was originally a Greek word,  whereas “crocuses” is a good old English construction.


  1. I love Tommies. There's a hillside a few miles from my house that is covered with them. xo

  2. Tommies are doing really well here as well. I've been musing on how the north facing ones are staying resolutely shut whilst the ones in the back which are basking in the sun are opening wide for any bees that pass by.

    I went to a fascinating talk about Sissinghurst by Troy Scott Smith at Bath Uni gardening club last year. There the tommies are doing far too well, so they're taking lots of them out to let other plants have a chance.

    I have a soft spot for Pickwick as our first married abode was in Pickwick, Corsham. Dickens is reputed to have stayed at the Hare and Hounds there.

  3. PS I've just spotted your entry in this year's Yellow Book :)

    I particularly like the idea of the evening opening with wine, most civilised. Let me know if you need any help with preparation, or on the day.

  4. I am in crocus heaven here as well. Would love to check in with you. I don't have a current email though. When you get a chance, send me a note if you would.


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