Will the real colchicums please stand up?

– Posted in: Colchicums, Plant info

When I was growing up, there was a game show on tv called “To Tell the Truth.” The various contestants tried to trick the game show panelists into thinking they were the true zoo veterinarian or whatever weird occupation was featured that day.

Sometimes I think my colchicums are trying the same trick on me. Oh, I can tell they’re all colchicums, all right, but is each one the cultivar it’s supposed to be?
Autumn Herald vs. Violet Queen
On the left, we have Colchicum ‘Autumn Herald.’ On the right, C. ‘Violet Queen.’ According to Odyssey Bulbs, ‘Autumn Herald’ has “wine-purple, ivory-eyed flowers, accented by pale-orange anthers.” And ‘Violet Queen’ should be “Rich, imperial purple with a white throat. Moderately tessellated” according to McClure and Zimmerman. If you are like me, you are wondering exactly what the difference is between wine purple and imperial purple. Compounding the problem is that fact that colchicums emerge from the ground quite pale, gradually deepening in color. I tried to pick a representative from each clump that was at its peak, but who knows? All the flowers in both clumps now seem deeper to me than when I took the photo 6 days ago. I don’t know whether cooler temperatures or just the passage of time is responsible, or whether they just look pale in the photo.
interiors of flowers
Looking inside the flowers, you can see they both have orange anthers, but would you call that orange pale? And I would call the tessellation of the flower on the right, which is supposed to be ‘Violet Queen,’ faintly tessellated as opposed to moderately tessellated. You can’t see this, because I cropped it out of the photo, but the ‘Violet Queen’ on the right is a couple of inches taller. That could be because they are in different locations, so I hesitate to use it as one of my criterion. And to be really scientific, I would also have to compare their foliage in the spring. So, okay, maybe they are two different cultivars. But I would never dare plant them next to each other, because I’m not at all sure I could tell them apart.

If these were the only two giving me trouble, I wouldn’t sweat it so much. But as much as I hate to admit it, many of my colchicum cultivars look an awful lot like each other. And I’ve certainly had impostors before. I’ve been paranoid about this ever since an email correspondent told me that a goodly percentage of colchicums sold are not what they are labelled, but merely variants of C. speciosum. (I’ve since lost his email address and all our correspondence to a backup snafu, so I hope he gets in touch again.) This is a discouraging state of affairs, especially given the price of single bulbs. It makes it difficult to whole-heartedly recommend them to other gardeners. Well, if you can’t tell the difference between wine purple and imperial purple, it probably won’t break your heart to get the wrong one, and 1) it will still look good, 2) it will still be just about rodent-proof, and 3) more than likely will multiply quickly, repaying your investment. You need to plan ahead if you want some, because they bloom in the fall, and even though they are treated as a fall bulb for planting purposes, they really need to bought and planted before autumn is well under way. However, if you happen to find some at your local garden center, even if they’re blooming, don’t hesitate to get some.

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

Comments on this entry are closed.

Kathy Purdy October 1, 2006, 4:14 pm

Looking forward to seeing your colchicum photo, Jenn. And yes, I’m familiar with the website–my sticker is on the homepage, but you have to scroll pretty far down to see it.

Lee, glad for your comment. Differences can be subtle, but they do have to be discernible, and when buying bulbs, you can’t do your discerning until they bloom, which in the case of colchicums can be up to a year later. (They sometimes don’t bloom the autumn you get them.)

Jenn September 29, 2006, 4:21 pm

I have a blossom about to be full – I’m taking pictures!

have you seen this?
Check it out!

Lee Ellsworth September 27, 2006, 12:15 pm

the variants of C. speciosum are so close to each other I would believe the email about about labelling. In my eyes a variant should have a substantial, easily apparent quality be it size color, hardiness, etc. that separates it from the original. I would never fault growers, hybridizers The gardener is the one making his/her selections and has to keep in mind differences can be subtle. Thanks for the great blog