Sandy’s Garden ... Crocuses or Croci?

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

“Fair-handed Spring unbosoms every grace; / throws out the snowdrop and the crocus first.”

These words were written by the Scots-born poet James Thomson and first appeared in print in 1728. In the manner of writers of his time, Thomson was fond of dropping the occasional Latin word into his verses. But he had no need to place crocus in italics to show that it was a word taken from the language of the Romans, for that name for a Spring flower passed unaltered into English, raising the question of its plural form. Is it croci, which is the correct Latin form; or is it ‘crocuses’, in the English manner?

Well, either is acceptable, although crocuses is by far the more common, croci being usually reserved for people who wish to demonstrate their scholarly linguistic training. And crocus was not a name of Roman invention, for they simply Latinised the Greek name krokos, a name which the Greeks may actually have taken originally from the Arabic kurkum. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “A small spring-flowering Eurasian plant of the iris family, which grows from a corm and bears bright yellow, purple, or white flowers,” the plant is native to woodland, scrub, and meadows from sea level to alpine tundra in central and southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, on the islands of the Aegean, and across Central Asia to Xinjiang Province in western China, so it is very well-known across much of the northern hemisphere.

And now, gentle reader, the time has come to confirm that we are concerned, in the month of March, with Crocus vernus … the Spring crocus … which originally came from the more restricted areas of the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Balkans, and not with Crocus sativus, the Autumn-flowering crocus from which we get saffron. And our interest is yet more specific, for it is the cultivars of Crocus vernus and yet more specifically of Crocus flavus … the yellow crocus … commonly called the Dutch crocus, which we use as ornamental plants. Just to confuse the issue, the crocus is not a native plant in the Netherlands, but was introduced in the 1560s by Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, a 16th-century Flemish writer, herbalist and diplomat who served as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople, from which city he sent a few corms to Carolus Clusius at the botanical garden in Leiden.

The Dutch, already expert in the development of new cultivars of bulbs and corms lost no time in developing new garden varieties of Crocus flavus, introducing larger-flowering types and working tirelessly to develop differently-coloured cultivars, a process which continues to this day. Lilac, mauve, yellow, and white are the predominant colours of contemporary Dutch crocuses; and splendid displays featuring all these colours are to be seen throughout central Scotland at this time of year, many of them in local authority parks and areas of maintained open space. The flowers are what make a crocus what it is, cup-shaped, solitary and salverform … composed of united petals forming a tube that spreads at the open end … tapering off into a narrow tube. Most crocus plants are poisonous although, interestingly, squirrels and field mice are quite partial to them and, given the chance, will steal corms from the borders, rock gardens, and lawns in which the gardener is best advised to plant them, in clusters of at least five, during the Autumn, preferably in full sun to light shade and in well-drained soil. Crocuses are very undemanding and can be left undisturbed after planting, their flowers and foliage being left to wither of their own accord. The enthusiastic gardener may choose to lift a clump every five years or so, separating the younger corms and discarding the mother before replanting: but this really is optional.