The Triplets: Impostor Colchicums

– Posted in: Colchicums

Colchicum speciosumColchicum 'The Giant'NOT Colchicum byzantinum 'Album'
I think of these colchicums as triplets because, even thought they are supposed to be three distinct plants, I can’t tell them apart. In the photos they appear to have more difference in color than they do in real life. The supposed ‘Album’ is in shade when the other two are in sunlight, so I am making do with what I have in terms of images.

Let’s start with Colchicum speciosum, which is regarded by Bowles as one of the main types of colchicum. There are a lot of selected forms of this species, and it is one of the parents for many hybrids. According to Bowles, it ‘bears the largest and handsomest flowers of the genus.” They certainly are large, but I have other colchicums that are equally as large. “Their form is globose, tapering gradually to the tube.” I’m not quite sure I would call it globose, but I’m not prepared to argue. It’s certainly not as globose as, say, a globeflower (Trollium spp.) is.

Bowles continues, “The original plant can be distinguished by the deep lilac colour of the tube and the white markings of its throat. On their first appearance above ground the tubes may be cream colour, flushed with lilac, but they deepen with age. The white of the throat passes gradually into the lilac, but a distinct white point runs up the centre of each segment for about an inch beyond the highest point of white on the margins.” None of these three plants has anything but a white perianth tube (which is what colchicum flowers have instead of a stem). In fact, the only photo I’ve seen of C. speciosum with a lilac tube was in The Gardener’s Book of Color by Andrew Lawson (p. 146), and it was gorgeous. Man, did I want that plant!

Finally, Bowles claims, “A curious scent can be noticed in this form, rather like that of a ripe plum, but with a whiff of something unpleasant underlying it, slightly ammoniacal and like that of a stable.” Bowles was almost as famous for his acute sense of smell as he was for his botanical knowledge, but it is only by sticking my nose deep into the blossoms (taking note of any bees first) and inhaling deeply that I can detect the faintest fragrance, something similar to sweet alyssum, as I already mentioned here. (He obviously wasn’t interested in marketing. Can you imagine reading, “It smells like ripe plums, with an underlying whiff of horse pee,” in a bulb catalog?)

John Bryan, in Bulbs, is downright vague in comparison to Bowles: “. . . slender goblet shape; color varies from pale to deep reddish violet, with paler to white throat.” That certainly covers a lot of ground. The place I bought C. speciosum from quoted Louise Beebe Wilder: “the color hints of raspberries, and it is very floriferous, as well as fragrant.” Yet another comment that makes me wonder if I have the same plant. The speciosums I have are a rather pale mauve; I don’t see the red of raspberry in them, and they are lacking in fragrance. Russell Stafford takes a page from Louise Beebe Wilder, calling speciosum “the quintessential large-flowered species, with fragrant . . . chalices of raspberry-purple.” I ordered one of his speciosums (actually 2: the straight species and the cultivar ‘Ordu’) to compare with the ones I have, but his haven’t come up yet. I just wish mine had fragrance!

Colchicum ‘The Giant’ is widely available from White Flower Farm and just about anybody else selling more than daffodils, tulips, and crocus. But how many of them have the correct plant? I’m not sure I do, and I bought mine from a reputable dealer. Bowles calls ‘The Giant’ “an outstanding variet[y] . . . so robust and large that [it is] good for planting between shrubs or in rough grass.” He says it resembles C. bornmuelleri, one of its parents, “in the greater size of the long firm tube, the taller and smoother segments of the tulip-shaped flowers, and also very slight tesselation which shows mostly on the inner surface.” (What is usually sold as C. bornmuelleri is usually a cultivar of C. speciosum, and other sources cite C. speciosum as the parent.) This doesn’t help me distinguish it from speciosum.

Both John Bryan and the place I bought it from decribed it as violet with a white base. To my eye, it’s no more violet and no taller than its speciosum neighbor, which is tall for a colchicum and plenty vigorous. Actually, neither of them look violet to me, but we went over this ground discussing ‘Violet Queen.’ They looked so similar that I wrote the firm I purchased them from and asked them how to tell the difference, and they replied, “The Giant and Speciosum are very similar. [They never tell you that in the catalog!] The Giant is larger and taller (8″) and has more white on it. It is also more of a lilac. The Speciosum is shorter (5″) and tends to be more of a rose color.” I went out there with a ruler; they are the same height. And while the photos above don’t make this clear, they are the same color–about what you see in the speciosum photo above. As far as I’m concerned, they are either both speciosum or both ‘The Giant,’ and I tend to lean toward them all being speciosums, and probably one of the most rapidly multiplying forms, though not one of the best in terms of color. Don’t get me wrong, they look great from a distance and well worth their place, but from everything I’ve read in books, the best speciosums have a deeper color.

And now we come to the impostor. I bought this from the same place I bought the indistinguishable speciosum and ‘The Giant.’ It is supposed to the white form of C. byzantinum which I already discussed. However, not only is it not white (and it looks darker than the photo shows), but it doesn’t look anything like the other byzantinums that I have. As I already made clear, it looks like the other two mugshots up at the top. (At least the bulb firm had the good grace to refund my money.) Go to The Pacific Bulb Society Wiki for an excellent photo of what it should look like. On this page Arnold Trachtenburg states “that name is apparently not valid. It is now being called ‘Innocence’ at the National Collection in Norfolk England.” How do people find out these things? I don’t know where to look.

Just to make sure it wasn’t just me, I picked one blossom from each of these clumps, taking care to make sure each one was fresh and new (the color changes on all of them as they age), and showed my little bouquet to everyone in the family. No one could pick any of them out as being different than the others. Perhaps a trained botanist could do better, but I don’t have one of those handy. All’s I can do is keep ordering them from various sources, and hope that I can finally find one that seems to match its description.

I started this on October 16, 2003, and look how long it’s taken me to finish this one post. Hopefully the others won’t take as long, but I’m trying not to worry too much about that. It’s important to me to document what I’ve learned about these plants, and how I’ve been frustrated in my attempts to learn more.

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.

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

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