Monday, September 25, 2006
The plant of the day for Vendemiaire 4 in the French Republican calendar is the autumn crocus or colchique. This is a plant I mentioned briefly in my article on naked ladies (amaryllis belladonna) in honor of my birthday on September 4.
The autumn crocus (colchicum autumnale) is also sometimes known as a naked lady because it has the same quality as the amaryllis belladonna of arising from the ground without any leaves. And although the amaryllis belladonna blooms on my birthday in Southern California where I was born (Burbank, to be exact), the autumn crocus blooms on my birthday here in Seattle where I live now. The autumn crocus is also known as meadow saffron and colchicum.
I really wouldn’t have known much about this plant, as it is not mentioned in any of my garden books, except that I did quite a bit of research (which I didn’t post) a few days ago on saffron which was the plant of the day for Vendemiaire 2. The saffron crocus (crocus sativa) is a member of the Iris family while the autumn crocus is a member of the Lily family. They look alike and bloom at the same time but the saffron crocus is highly valued as a spice while the autumn crocus is deadly.
The two websites I recommend for information on saffron, Gernot Katzer’s spice web site:
and Paghat’s article on the many myths that swirl around the saffron crocus:
both briefly mention the autumn crocus.
The autumn crocus grows from corms and puts forth long slender green leaves in the spring that can be mistaken for wild onions or garlic (which can be a fatal mistake—see below). It produces its fruit, a green pod in the center of the leaves, in spring. It blooms in autumn, coming directly out of the ground without any leaves. The flowers are pink and fragile, almost ghostly on their long tubular stems. Paghat in her interesting article suggests that the crocus was associated with Persephone and that they might mark the spot where she descended into the Underworld in fall just as they mark her emergence in spring. Chelsie VandaVeer in her article “What Plant was Named for the Homeland of a Sorceress,”
says the autumn crocus was once called “mysteria,” possibly because they were used in the Eleusinian Mysteries. It’s hard to know if the flower she describes is the saffron crocus or the autumn crocus.
The genus name, colchicum, was given to it by Linneaus after Colchis, an ancient region on the Black Sea, south of the Caucausus Mountains. Jason of Greek legend went there looking for the Golden Fleece and met up with Medea, a famous sorceress and poisoner. She made an ointment for him to rub on his limbs, shield and spear which enabled him yoke two fire-breathing bulls. The autumn crocus was said to have sprung up from the blood of the crucified Prometheus.
The plant is highly toxic, with an effect similar to arsenic poisoning according to this website:
This case study describes the death of an older man who ate autumn crocus believing it to be wild garlic and died three days later:
Yet the active alkaloid, colchicine, has been used to treat gout, and also as an anti-cancer treatment. Chelsie VandaVeer has an article, “What ancient medical treatment is still being used today?” explaining how this works:
Wikipedia has a very short article on the autumn crocus
The glorious photograph comes from Wikipedia.