Autumn Crocus

Colchicum autumnale
Colchicum autumnale ‘Giant’

true plant arsenic?

An incredibly interesting and very poisonous plant is Cholchicum autumnale in the family Cholchicaceae and order Liliales. It is better known as autumn crocus and meadow saffron. The flowers appear in autumn, whereas the foliage follows months later in spring the following year. You may find yourself wondering what those long lily like leaves void of any inflorescence are doing in your garden, only to find yourself wondering again, right at the beginning of fall, where all of a sudden these beautiful purple to pale pink, crocus-like flowers come from. The flowers belong to those leaves you had spotted months earlier and had probably long forgotten about. Another name for this wondrous plant is hence naked lady, because the flowers appear all barren. But there is more to this.

The ovaries of the autumn crocus are located deep in the ground. Due to this the flowers possess extremely long styles, often 10 cm or longer. What looks like a stem are in fact the tepals joined into a long tube and enclosing the prolonged, pale white styles. Each flower possesses three such styles, which remain free and unattached all the way to the ground. The flowers attract pollinators such as bees and flies. They are hermaphroditic and self-fertile.

The capsular fruit emerges in late spring together with the foliage. The ripe capsule is brown and swollen. It contains the small black-brown seeds, which possess white elaiosomes, literally “oil bodies”. These oil bodies attract ants, which then carry the seeds away and thus help the plant spread. (Other plants possessing such elaiosomes are e.g. Chelidonium maius, Helleborus and Sanguinaria canadensis.) Besides this the seeds are also spread by wind.

During the winter time all vital parts of the plant remain underground. (Such plants are called geophytes.) The old corm dies whilst a new one emerges. At the same time a lateral offspring develops into a second corm. The corms are brown and scaly, measuring 2,5 to 5 cm in diameter and up to 7 cm in length.

The German name Herbstzeitlose translates as “autumn time-less”; however, the name actually expresses a slightly different meaning, since “lose” derives from an old German word for divining or foretelling, hence “messenger of autumn” would be more correct. (And it’s quite a beautiful name too.) Other German folk names include Nacket Huren (“naked whore”), Herbstvergessene (“autumn forgotten”), Zeitlose (“timeless”), Herbstlilie (“autumn lily”), Wintersafran (“winter saffron”), Michelsblume (“Michael’s flower”), Winterhauch (“winter breath”), Leichenblume (“corpse flower”) and Teufelsbrot (“devil’s bread”).

Fading flowers of Colchicum autumnale. Wild Colchicums are said to contain more poison than cultivated forms.
Fading flowers of Colchicum autumnale. Wild Colchicums are said to contain more poison than cultivated forms.

History and legend

Dioscorides first mentioned a plant by the name Colchicum variegatum. The specific name autumnale refers to the time of flowering. The genus name Colchicum is derived from Colchis, the landscape on the Black Sea, most famously known for the witch Medea, who is told to have poisoned her enemies with the plant, but also restored youth with its help. In Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, Medea rubs a salve on Jason’s limbs, which may have contained Colchicum. It is said this plant grew from the blood that tormented Prometheus spilled over the land, when the eagle picked his liver. However, the very same story is also often related to the Mandrake. Either way, meadow saffron has been used medicinally for at least 3500 years. It is still a treatment for rheumatism and gout.

Due to its high toxicity it has also a long history of abuse in murder as well as suicide. The roots maintain their colchicine content for months and could be shipped around the globe as a raw medicine.

Magical attributions

The root or bulb was tied as an amulet around the neck during the times of the black death. The witch Medea allegedly used Colchicum in poison murder but also to restore youth.

Attributions: protection, death spells, healing, ruled by Saturn (or Pluto), Hecate herb, autumn messenger

Toxicity

Colchicum has been mistaken for bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum) by foragers. The corms, leaves and seeds contain the poisonous alkaloid colchicine, which is a mitotic poison (it interferes with the reduction division of the chromosomes during meiosis). It acts similar to arsenic, with no known antidote. Long latency period and lack of antidote make diagnosis and appropriate treatment difficult.

In suspected case of poisoning call emergency immediately (in Germany contact your nearest poison control center = Giftnotruf).

Symptoms of poisoning occur within 2-6 hours and consist of: burning sensation in the mouth and throat, vomiting, spasms, diarrhea (containing blood), circulatory insufficiency, lowered body temperature and blood pressure. After 1-2 days death sets in through respiratory paralysis. The patient stays conscious until the end.

Medicinal uses

Colchicine is a useful drug with a narrow therapeutic index. It is used for treating gout and familial Mediterranean fever. A synthetic compound similar to Colchicine is used in the development of a medicament for the treatment of some types of cancer.

Other uses

Colchicine’s mitose interrupting properties are made use of in plant breeding to achieve larger plants and fruits: it stops plant cells from dividing. As a result haploid cells become polyploid and larger then usual.

A garden variant of Colchicum with huge flowers
A garden variant of Colchicum with huge flowers

In the garden

The autumn crocus is native to Southern Europe and Asia. It grows on moist meadows and pastures. In the garden it likes a spot in full sun or half shade. The soil should be fertile, well-drained and hold moisture. Plant the corms in late summer or autumn, ca. 8-10 cm deep. The foliage requires space, hence plant about 20 cm apart. Autumn crocus spreads readily through its corms, to a lesser extent also through seed. The plant is hardy and takes care of itself and basically needs no care. After some years they will form dense clusters. Dig out the corms in midsummer (when the foliage has died back), separate and replant directly. This way new plants can be obtained easily. Make sure to wear gloves when handling.

Related plants

Flame lily (Gloriosa rothschildiana), Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum)

Sources, references, further reading

Wikipedia + Botanikus + Giftpflanzen + Gods and Goddesses in the Garden, by Peter Bernhardt + A note on Medea’s Plant and the Mandrake +

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