By Jo Simpson
Iowa State University
If you long for a little visual taste of spring, crocuses may be the bulbs for you. This week at Reiman Gardens, visitors can find such a visual taste outdoors, behind the Home Production garden. Follow the path that leads to the Stafford Arboretum garden and immediately on your right, tucked around the bottom of the Northern Sea Oats, are several clumps of Crocus vernalis ‘Golden Yellow.’
Crocus vernalis, a member of the Iridaceae family (irises), is one of the earliest blooming spring bulbs, often peeking up through the last winter snows. Varieties come in purples, yellows and whites with a single bloom, three stamens and grass-like leaves. The fall blooming crocus, genus Colchicum, has six stamens. There is also a prairie crocus, but botanically, this one belongs to the buttercup family.
To satisfy your craving for the spring crocus, you must plan ahead by planting in the fall. Start with a well-drained soil and place the bulbs, which are technically classified as corms, 3-4 inches deep and 3-6 inches apart. Rake a general bulb fertilizer over the top when you finish covering them and water in.
One important trick with crocuses is to protect them from hungry wildlife. Some gardeners fence their bulbs to protect them from rabbits. The bulbs also can be dipped in a chemical deterrent, such as Deer Off, before planting. At the end of their bloom period, do not cut back the crocus foliage for at least six weeks. This allows the plants to continue photosynthesis and store energy for next year’s blooms. Gardeners can plant annuals around the dying foliage, but should not plant varieties that need a lot of water. To over-winter well, crocus bulbs need a dry summer. Some gardeners like to plant masses of these beautiful spring gems under trees or cascading down hillsides. The corms will multiply and can be dug up, divided and replanted in the fall.
Another interesting tidbit about the crocus is its role in international cuisine. Saffron, one of the world’s most precious spices, is made from the dried stigmas of Crocus sativus. In fact, the common and genus name of our beloved spring jewel comes from krokus, the Greek word for saffron. The stigmas of 75,000 flowers must be hand-picked to produce one pound of saffron filaments. As the source of a precious spice and one of our first tastes of spring flowering color in the garden, the crocus is this week’s Reiman’s Pick.