CROCUSES THAT bloom in the fall are as pretty as those that bloom in late winter, and I never ran into anybody that didn't have moderate fits over them when seen blooming in October.
Yet they are rarely seen in gardens, and the reason is probably that few gardeners get collected in time to order them.
They should be planted in August, and should be ordered in July. But in July the gardener is usually thinking about crab grass or dahlias or getting the chrysanthemums set out (a project of late May that often is delayed by the harried gardener).
Still, if time, strength and money hold out, a batch of fall crocuses, colchicums and sternbergias are well worth having.
Colchicums resemble giant crocuses -- the pointed goblet blooms are perhaps six inches long instead of two, as crocuses are. They bloom in September and October, and come in soft violets (bluish or rosy, depending on variety) and white.
Both families of bulbs bloom naked, without their leaves. The crocuses have typical rush-like or thread-like leaves that come up in the fall and die down in spring. Though long, say up to 18 inches, it is not conspicuous foliage and is not bad to look at.
But colchicums have fat leaves, like a small dock, and these begin to die down as daffodils bloom, and look rattier and more discolored as several weeks go by. In a sort of pasture situation it is all right, but because of the annual decrepitude of the foliage, colchicums should not be planted (for example) in a neat narrow bed along a walk with a backing of box.
If there is an open glade, with a bit of sun, but a woodland floor effect, both crocuses and colchicums look splendid and sometimes settle down for years.
Now the sternbergia looks like a rich yellow crocus made of wax. It blooms in early fall, and sometimes its handsome leaves, like a crocus except three times as wide, half as long and leathery green, accompany the flower. Sternbergias are fine on a low bank beneath box bushes facing south or west. (They also grow in woodlands, but I would give them more sun if I could manage it). Unfortunately, sternbergias often cost 50 cents each, and who can afford big patches of them?
But by keeping one's eye out, sometimes they will be seen for less. There is something about the yellow that looks marvelous with box.
Of the fall crocuses the one I liked best is C. speciosus, which comes in a number of named varieties in tints of light blue-lavendar, also white. I suggest the plain C. speciosus. Bulbs should be planted close together, 15 to 20 per square foot.It works best, to my taste, to have two dozen of them in an 18-inch patch than to have 100 widely spaced out. Ideally several hundred or a couple of thousand would be best to start with, but not many of us can afford it.
There are many other fall crocuses, but I would not fool with them now since C. speciosus is the best, when you weigh price, ease of culture, showiness and reliability. The tangerine orange stamens are pretty against the lavendar petals.
Saffron comes from the saffron crocus, C. sativus. I cannot see that it is worth growing. It is rather nothing-colored, but its orange pistil is dried for use in cooking and dyeing. It does not bloom freely, in the experience of most gardeners, who commonly get 5 or 10 blooms from 100 bulbs, and when it does bloom it is not showy. Furthermore the saffron (in my experience) does not have any taste. That is all right, since I do not like saffron much anyway. Theoretically it is a key ingredient in those fish stews they make in Marseilles, but I always suspected they get the yellow and the flavor from cumin.
I do not have much faith in restaurants using expensive ingredients and methods if substitutes can be found, and you will notice that in America we will eat absolutely anything anyway, and so much for saffron. The French are better cooks, partly because French restaurants (in France) cannot get away with murder.
Let me apologize to my poor garden for being testy a couple of weeks ago when I observed things were spotty and not attractive. It has straightened up and flown right, and I have been much enchanted with it, though it is true I am easily pleased.
The scarlet gladiolus -- a mere handful of bulbs --here and there among the buff, salmon, lemon, apricot, orange and flesh-pink daylilies have been fine, and the rose-orchid-lavendar gladiolus are grand with the scarlet. (The yellow with scarlet blotch were a mistake, but that shows you never know till you try.)
Increasingly I admire colors in a wide spectrum, rather than in clumps of one thing at a time. The colors have to look right, but I strongly urge all gardeners to be far bolder than is the custom.
What I liked, I suspect, was the sea of yellow and canteloupe and orange, with touches of black-red, lavendar, rose, crimson, scarlet and white in very small dabs. Tawny colors do not look right with the other colors and white is dangerous.
Red should be pure and sparkling, to suit me in this context, and those pinks with a lot of blue in them should almost be banned, with so much yellow, but a touch here and there makes a salubrious shock.
The chicory that grows along roadsides and in vacant lots is a glorious sky blue, better than most summer flowers in my opinion, and if it weedy, then so much the better for its survival in crowded gardens.