About twenty years ago, a kind visitor gave us a couple of glossy chestnut-brown corms of Colchicum speciosum, but in its very special, large flowered white form. A couple of weeks ago, in a subsequent garden, I dug up a couple of clumps of those original plants descendants. They were planted alongside a mossy stone path that leads down the entire length of the garden, shaded on one side by a high hedge, and on the other by dense plantings – roses, apple trees, smoke bushes, Neillia racemosa, and so on. The colchicums are so beautiful that my thought was to have a scatter of new clumps along the path’s whole length, for something rather showy as we head into grey autumn. I ended up gloating over a pile of rather over a hundred bulbs in a whole range of sizes. What riches!
Colchicums are not especially easy plants to integrate into the garden. In the wild, most grow in coarse meadow or light scrub. The surrounding vegetation gives the long flower tube enough support to keep the flowers vertical. Colchicums growing in tidy gardens, with plenty bare earth, have no support, and the flowers fall messily over – especially true of gorgeous doubles like ‘Waterlily’.
There are problems again in the spring, when the corms produce their foliage. This is glossy, lovely, but very abundant. Given the chance it flops outwards, cheerfully suppressing whatever is nearby. Here, the colchicums are mostly amongst low growing geranium species, lamiums, hellebores, periwinkles and so on, so the aggression doesn’t matter. If we grew only ‘treasures’, it would.
Having fallen madly for our first white colchicums, we then tried many others. The chequered petal sorts sound wonderful, have been grown for centuries, but aren’t exactly show-stoppers in the garden. The refined species are great if you have a rock-garden or an alpine house, even better if you have a proper meadow. We have had none of those, and the relevant species have never prospered under our haphazard garden management.
Of the doubles, we only manage to keep the easy ‘Waterlily’ flourishing. It’s a brilliant thing, giving the gardener all sorts of happenstance colour schemes like ‘Waterlily’ flowering through fallen leaves of Rhus typhina and Acer rubrum, though sometimes it flowers too early, and then looks wonderful amongst a tangle of asters like the bluish-white Aster (or whatever it is now), divaricata.
Of course, most colchicums are expensive, and my treasured pile of corms was treasure indeed. However, they are not difficult from seed. Sow in pots in autumn, and leave outdoors. Watch for insect pests on seedlings. We forget to pot the seedlings on, and so whole potfuls get planted out as a single clump. Easiest is the straightforward sort of Colchicum speciosum, good strong flowers, chalice shaped, petals white as they fuse into the flower tube, but with a handsome purple area around each petal top. In flower as I write, they are rather fetchingly being pollinated by some nattily striped hover flies. Seed pods will appear at the centre of next summers foliage.