Colchicum byzantinum

– Posted in: Colchicums, What's up/blooming

Colchicum byzantinum growing on the driveway slopeColchicum byzantinum in the ell of the house
These are the plants that started my fascination with colchicums. They were growing all around some peonies when we moved here. The foliage came up in the spring, very wide, about a foot tall, and bright green. I kept waiting for them to bloom so I could figure out what they were . . . and they never bloomed! Finally, as I got to know my neighbors, one of them told me Sara down the street had the same thing growing in her yard. When I finally met Sara, she told me they bloomed in the fall. Ohhhhhh.

From her description and my intense study of the White Flower Farm catalog (how many newbie gardeners have gotten an education this way?), I concluded they were colchicums. But when they did finally bloom in their proper time, I also concluded that they weren’t any of the ones sold by White Flower Farm. So what kind were they?

E. A. Bowles, writing in Crocus & Colchicum, spends a whole chapter detailing the minute differences between C. byzantinum and C. cilicicum, so that I am never quite sure which one I have. To sum up, he describes byzantinum as “pale pinkish lilac,” which mine are. But he goes on in great detail about the sexual parts of both species and here he starts to lose me. “The styles of C. byzantinum . . . are tipped with a very conspicuous crimson crook.” I definitely see the “crook,” but I’d call the color closer to a dull purple-brown, which is the color of the cilicicum styles. And he says “C. cilicicum produces leaves soon after the flowers fade.” Well, define “soon.” What I call C. byzantinum pokes its leaves an inch or two above ground sometime in the late fall or early winter, and then stops there until spring comes. The tips of the leaves often get burned when we lose (or never have) snow cover. Perhaps in a milder climate (such as the England Bowles lived in) they would come right up. He also states, “C. byzantinum flowers . . . in August and is generally over by the time the first flowers of C. cilicicum appear.” Again, this is something that could be greatly affected by climate. Whichever mine are, they occasionally bloom at the very end of August, but usually the first or second week of September. So that doesn’t help too much. “The corm of C. byzantinum is the largest of the genus”–doesn’t help unless you’ve seen other species/cultivars. “The leaves are . . . six inches in width and a foot in length”–well, mine are definitely that. And my plants are also “floriferous . . . producing as many as twenty flowers from one corm.” Okay, I haven’t actually counted, but they certainly look like twenty apiece.

John Bryan, writing in Bulbs, describes byzantinum having “flowers very numerous . . . pale lilac pink with white midline above, corresponding to distinct keel below.” Except for the fact that I don’t know what a keel is, this describes my plant exactly. The only thing that keeps me from rock-solid confidence is the fact that he describes C. cilicicum as “very similar to C. byzantinum but flowers a little later.” Hmmm. Define later.

Russell Stafford, who I am beginning to realize is one of the few to write his own catalog copy, says “each corm throw[s] 12 [he must have counted, unlike me!] or more lilac-pink, white-starred, cup-shaped blooms . . . in August and September. Fragrant. Broad, pleated leaves in late winter/spring. . . . Zone 5/6.” I’ve never been able to detect much fragrance in any of my colchicums, the strongest is a faint whiff resembling the annual white alyssum. And they’ve been plenty hardy for me; I’d rate them Zone 4. If you click on the left photo, you will see a larger photo, and perhaps you can see the white midline, which gives the “star” effect he mentions. This photo shows it even better.

All right, I guess I won’t beat this to death. If byzantinum is what I’ve got, you should get some, too. They multiply quickly and look nice growing in grass, as you can see in the right-hand photo. The only trouble is, you won’t be able to mow until the leaves die down, which is July for us. Since the flowers aren’t exceptionally big, you need lots of them. Or just plant them near a walkway where you will see them. And I just have to tell you why they’re called byzantinum. In 1588, two ladies from Vienna were given this colchicum by someone in Constantinople–the Byzantine empire. They, in turn, gave some to Clusius, who described them in his Plantarum Historia. According to Bowles, “those now grown may be descended from his form.” How’s that for a passalong plant!

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

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