Autumn Flowering Crocusses

Wild Italian Saffron Can be Mistaken for a Deadly Plant!

'Saffron made in Italy' has now staked a large claim to the saffron market with organic growers of this fascinating crocus flower now appearing all over Italy. The flower of Crocus sativus still grows wild in the fields and woods of Tuscany, where saffron production is now proliferate. Although the wild saffron crocus begins flowering in September, it can keep providing it's violet flowers right through on in to February.

I took a walk today (28th February) and found large swathes of crocus still growing in the fields in fields around my home near Montalcino. However, the bulbs I found were not the famous saffron crocus those of a deadly crocus that is almost identical to the famous saffron flower, so popular in Italian cuisine.

Colchicum autumnale is a bulb flowering from September through to February, however it doesn't produce saffron but instead contains a chemical very similar to arsenic! Otherwise known as 'meadow saffron', 'naked lady' (owing to the fact that the flowers appear long after the leaves have withered) and the 'autumn crocus' It's flowers are almost identical to those of the saffron. The only visible difference between the two plants being that the saffron flower has 3 stamen, whereas the poisonous Colchicum has 6. The stamens of the saffron flower also have long stamen which protrude visibly from amongst the flower petals and it is these long, orange stamen that provide the precious saffron.

Above: Crocus sativa: The Saffron flower                                       Above: The poisonous Colchicum

Curious as it may seem, even the 'impostor' plant has some very important properties which, surprisingly, are not at all harmful. The autumn flowering crocus's major healing property is for gout, of all things and this particular substance can be found within the plant's poison, known as colchicines. The main reason for this poison is probably not for curing human over-indulgence (gout) but rather as a defense against the porcupine and other animals that would gladly dig up the nutritious bulb and eat it during the cold Italian winter.

Above: Crocus sativa: The Saffron flower                                       Above: The poisonous Colchicum

From an Italian gardening perspective, however, both the real saffron and the ordinary autumn flowering crocus provide an excellent splash of natural colour in a season that is otherwise so deprived of such natural cheer.


Above: Colchica autumnale

These small plants (particularly the saffron!) are an ideal addition to the organic or ecological Italian garden, as they are now endangered species in the wild. Grow in full sun, plant at around 8cm deep and apply some bone-meal when planting and watch them spread joy across the ground- but please... DO NOT eat the wrong ones!

Macro prints by Hannah Summers at