Colchicum Design Ideas from Montrose Gardens

– Posted in: Colchicums
21 comments

Many gardeners complain that it is difficult to place colchicums in the garden because of their unusual growing cycle, in which their leaves grow in the spring, die down in the summer, and then the flowers emerge in the fall. The colchicum bed at Montrose Gardens in Hillsborough, North Carolina, pictured above, contained many colchicum design ideas that could be implemented in any garden.

Approaching the bed from this direction, we are actually leaving the house and gardens proper and moving toward the entrance gate.

Approaching the bed from this direction, we are actually leaving the house and gardens proper and moving toward the entrance gate.

There are several different kinds of colchicums in this bed as well as other plants. (Red Dirt Ramblings has a nice close-up shot.) At the far end of the bed are several clumps of a plant that has bluish flowers with a mauve cast which complements the varying lilac-pink shades of the colchicums very well. (I think it is hardy ageratum, Eupatorium coelestinum, but since that is “hardy” to Zone 6 I am going more by the pictures I have seen of this plant. You Southerners help me out here.) These plants anchor both ends of the bed and also echo the flower color of a different plant in a bed further along, thus tying the two beds together with color.

Colchicums star in this bed, but the other plants were carefully chosen to work with them. (Click on the photo to enlarge)

Colchicums star in this bed, but the other plants were carefully chosen to work with them. (Click on the photo to enlarge)


A bright magenta petunia and dark purple foliage plants echo the color of the colchicums. They share the same hue but their values are quite different. The grey-green of some of the foliage plants is the opposite of the colchicum’s bluish pinks and flatters them by contrast. Similar interactions are going in this photo from my own garden:
Different hues of pink and green play off each other.

Different hues of pink and green play off each other.


There are white colchicums in this Montrose Gardens bed, too, but they get a different design treatment:
The black grass makes the white flowers stand out.

The black grass makes the white flowers stand out.

I am pretty sure this is black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, but again, this is another plant that is not hardy in my area. I get the same dramatic contrast by growing white colchicums with a dark leaved ajuga:
Colchicum autumnale var. alboplenum stands out in a bed of dark ajuga

Colchicum autumnale var. alboplenum stands out in a bed of dark ajuga

Without the dark leaves for contrast, the white flowers are not as visible, especially when there is a lot going on, as in the Montrose bed. But you know, pairing plants based on flower color is relatively easy. What stumps a lot of gardeners is how to handle colchicums in the spring, when their foliage emerges and then goes dormant.
The hellebores are background plants now, but were in their glory when the colchicums were leafing out.

The hellebores are background plants now, but were in their glory when the colchicums were leafing out.

In spring when the colchicum leaves emerge, the hellebores, seen in the back in the photo above, are blooming their hearts out. I can see in my minds’ eye that the upward thrusting colchicum leaves would make a pleasing structural counterpoint to umbrella-like hellebore foliage. But what really stumps gardeners, especially the fastidious, deadhead-and-keep-everything-edged sorts, is what to do when those oversized leaves are going dormant:
Colchicums are hard to love when they're going dormant.

Colchicums are hard to love when they're going dormant.

Even I, the self-appointed colchicum evangelist, must concede that they are not at their best at this stage. What you may not have noticed in the Montrose photos above, but which I could see at the time, was the presence of hardy geranium foliage. Hardy geraniums are making lovely mounds of greenery, spangled with blooms, just when the colchicums are at their worst. Depending on which hardy geraniums you plant, you can easily camouflage the waning colchicum leaves with some lusty geraniums. And the geraniums are usually due for a cutback shortly before the colchicums bloom. It’s a win-win situation that I first read about in an essay by Brian Bixley in Essays on Gardening in a Cold Climate. (Catchy title, yes?)

I was very happy to find these colchicums blooming at Montrose Gardens. Since so many of these southern plants were unfamiliar, stumbling across these flowering bulbs was sort of like meeting up with your next door neighbor when traveling abroad. I was pleased to see that the same siting and planting techniques that I have used to incorporate colchicums in my garden were also used at Montrose Gardens, though with a southern plant palette.

Colchicums: isn’t it time you planted 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.

Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment. It bursts upon a man every year…as though it had never happened before, but had just been shown by God how to do it, and tried, and found the impossible possible.

~Ellis Peters in The Summer of the Danes

19 Comments… add one

Sharon February 6, 2012, 1:14 pm

Two seasons ago, a neighbor friend shared some of her colchicum (fall crocus) with me.
They did wonderfully in a mound under our aspen trees with other spring crocus. Accidentally, last summer my husband weed-wacked (cut down the grass where the leaves appear while trimming the there. Do you think there’s any hope? Also, I’m having trouble finding replacement bulbs. Places seem to be ‘out of stock’.

Kathy Purdy February 6, 2012, 7:58 pm

Botanically, colchicum and crocus are two different genera. There are some colchicums that are called autumn crocus, and there are crocuses that bloom in autumn as well. Colchicums send up leaves in the spring which die down in the summer. Then the flowers appear in the fall without any leaves. If your husband cut the grass down during the summer, it should not have harmed any of the bulbs there, because that is when they are dormant. If you really have colchicums, what you will see this spring is very broad leaves. If what you have is crocus, you will see grass-like leaves plus flowers in the spring from the spring-blooming crocus, and then grass-like leaves plus flowers in the fall, from the fall crocus. Rodents love to eat crocus, but colchicums are poisonous to them. If no plants come up at all, then I would say you used to have crocuses, but some sort of rodent ate them. Weed whacking in summer should have no effect on them whatsoever.

Leslie Shields August 20, 2010, 7:48 pm

Hi Kathy, Wondering what the best time would be to transplant and divide some clumps of colchiums.

Kathy Purdy August 20, 2010, 8:00 pm

I dig them up just as the foliage withers–late June, early July. I replant the largest and put the rest in net bags and give them away. The teeny ones left I plant somewhere new in the garden (it takes me all summer to make up my mind) right about now–before Labor Day. So if you can find your now-dormant colchicums, now would be a fine time to lift and divide them. They can be planted right after blooming, too, but may take a year to hit their stride, and may heave in the spring.

Brian Bixley August 20, 2010, 10:42 am

Hello Kathy, I’m sorry you didn’t care for my book title, Essays on Gardening in a Cold Climate. ‘Gardening in a Cold Climate’ was chosen as a admiring touch of the hat to Nancy Mitford; ‘Essays’ to indicate that the book consists of a series of pieces on widely different subjects; particular plants, garden design, garden literature and garden history, with very little of a ‘how-to-do-it’ nature. I expect a better title could have been found. The colchicums here are in a bed 40′ x 10′, and are planted under white-flowering crabapples, perennial geraniums and with many spring-flowering bulbs. The geraniums are then mown to the ground in the third week of August (right now!), and a second time at the end of October, so that the bed is ready for snowdrops, aconites, Virginia bluebells, etc., all flowering before the colchicum foliage appears. BB

Kathy Purdy August 20, 2010, 3:19 pm

Dear Mr. Bixley, I may not have found the title imaginative, but it was certainly descriptive, and in the days before online searching and shopping a descriptive title was certainly the best way to ensure that those interested in the subject matter would succeed in finding it. Please don’t take offense at my smart-aleck remark. Thank you for providing more details about your colchicum planting arrangement. I first discovered your essay in Horticulture, and went on to request your book from the public library, but was never able to locate a copy for myself. Thus I didn’t have your precise words at hand when I wrote that post last year. I really enjoyed your book, and I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, if only online. Please do stop by again.

Leslie October 11, 2009, 9:07 am

Two thoughts – you might want to give that “hardy ageratum” a try. I garden in zone 5/6 in CT and it is hardy here, rambunctious in fact. Second I have interplanted my colchicums with bergenia. It seems to work well but am going to try some with geraniums great tip. Thanks

Sue October 11, 2009, 7:29 am

Maybe I should try to plant some again. Last fall, I planted a couple in the middle of a front yard bed, and the leaves came up this year, but the blooms did not. I was left with a gap in the bed that drove me nuts. I put a pot in the area, hoping it was not over where a bloom would come up, but it shouldn’t have been over both. I think I put the pot there after they should have been up, though. I wonder if they will come up next year.
.-= Sue´s last blog ..Not Ready =-.

Kathy Purdy October 11, 2009, 8:58 am

Sometimes they do skip blooming the first year, so if you get the leaves again next spring, I bet you will get flowers, too. However, there is a gap of a couple of month between the leaves dying and the flowers emerging, so hang onto that pot, too!

eliz October 10, 2009, 11:29 pm

well, I honestly don’t expect that I’ll have enough colchicums to worry about how they fit into any design, but I certainly like seeing these lovely examples, especially as I missed this and many other GWA tours.

Patsy Bell Hobson October 10, 2009, 3:58 pm

You have inspired me. I am going to try some Colchicums in my garden next season. I’ve avoided them because the bulbs are pricey. But we can always use fall color in the perennial beds. Thank for this informative post.
.-= Patsy Bell Hobson´s last blog ..How to Preserve Basil =-.

Kathy Purdy October 10, 2009, 7:04 pm

Patsy, the bulbs are pricey, but most of them seem to multiply fast. I usually just buy one of a particular cultivar, and then lift and divide after about 3 years.

Kylee from Our Little Acre October 10, 2009, 2:50 pm

Yes, I know they’re supposed to be planted by August, but these were on sale for half off, so I bought them anyway. The bulbs were nice-sized and very firm, so I figure they’ll be fine for next fall. I was just very surprised when one showed a lavender flower now. It’s flowering at ground level, but it doesn’t matter to me. I never expected a thing from them this fall.
.-= Kylee from Our Little Acre´s last blog ..Then the Sun Came Out =-.

Kylee from Our Little Acre October 10, 2009, 2:06 pm

As you know, I recently planted some Colchicums. I had nine of them, and planted them in groups of 3 each. I’m working on a post about them, because guess what? One is BLOOMING! Wasn’t that just last week when I planted the bulbs?
.-= Kylee from Our Little Acre´s last blog ..Then the Sun Came Out =-.

Kathy Purdy October 10, 2009, 2:25 pm

That’s why most bulb suppliers ship them before the other bulbs, and why you need to order them early. They will bloom in the package if you don’t plant them in time.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter October 10, 2009, 1:47 pm

Geranium ‘Gerwat’ (Rozanne) would make a fabulous planting partner with Colchicums. Hmm, I happen to have some of both – I guess I should give that a try.
My son & I both love the foliage of Colchicums, almost more than the blooms. Hellebore foliage does make an excellent foil for the Colchicum foliage. I just need to figure out which to move, the Colchicum or the Hellebore?
.-= Mr. McGregor’s Daughter´s last blog ..It’s A Bittersweet Symphony =-.

Anna/Flowergardengirl October 10, 2009, 1:22 pm

Kathy, I think your ageratums might be heliotrope. But can’t be sure from the picture. Heliotrope is an annual here in our zone 7 gardens but worth planting cause it smells so good.

Very nice article and was a joy to read especially since it was about an NC garden. Loved meeting you there.

Kathy Purdy October 10, 2009, 2:25 pm

Anna, I have grown heliotrope as an annual before and I know it wasn’t heliotrope. I agree, it’s not the best photo.

Dee/reddirtramblings October 10, 2009, 12:59 pm

Kathy, thanks for the link love. Good information on where to place these beautiful fall bloomers.~~Dee
.-= Dee/reddirtramblings´s last blog ..Do you know what day this is? (Hint: gifts are involved!) =-.

Leave a Comment