Growing Crocus in Australia
Includes crocus for Australian gardeners and a look at the new book Janis Ruksans, titled, Crocuses : a complete guide to the genus. Marcus Harvey of Hill View Rare Plants holds Australia’s largest collection of crocus species. Many of these wonderful plants are available from his nursery Hill View Rare Plants. Marcus provides us with an introduction to the genus including notes on those most suited to Australian conditions.
A brand new book on crocus has just been released by Timber Press and Marcus Harvey of Hill View Nursery gives us the rundown on these charming, brilliant little garden jewels.
When Small is Beautiful – A Gardener’s Guide to the Crocus
The versatile little crocus is no one-season wonder. It is one of the first and the last of the dwarf bulbs to flower providing a succession of exuberant displays from the earliest days of autumn through to the first flush of spring. Hailing from continental and Mediterranean regions of the Old World this attractive genus comprises over 80 species and all produce showy, goblet-shaped flowers in a range of shades from yellow, white, mauve and lilac-blue. In many cases their outer petals are conspicuously striped and stippled in darker hues and as an added bonus some species possess large and strongly coloured stigmas. While this is of additional ornamental value to the gardener it is also of considerable commercial importance because this is the source of saffron. In one particular species, Crocus sativus, the dried red stigma is used as a dye, as well as a condiment, and at one time, an important medicine.
The crocus is extensively cultivated in northern Europe and America where it is especially valued for the cheer that they bring to the bleakness of the late-winter garden. Australian gardeners, however have paid scant attention to this little gem despite there being dozens of striking autumn-blooming species that are much better adapted to our drier, water-scarce climate. The problem has been largely one of scale. Individually crocuses are small plants and gardeners have not known how to use them effectively in a garden setting. They must be planted extravagantly or better still, use species that will spread and colonize a sizeable chunk of the garden, or grown in pots or raised beds where they can be brought closer to the eye to take in the detail. They can even be brought into the house for the pleasure of enjoying their flowering fragrance.
A recent publication on crocus by bulb expert and plant hunter extraordinaire, Janis Ruksans, titled, Crocuses : a complete guide to the genus, is easy and enjoyable to read no matter whether the reader is expert or beginner and with 64 pages dedicated to over 300 colour pictures it is a wonderful showcase for the genus. Included are some of the very best for Australian conditions like Greek species, C. niveus, which bears huge, glistening white or lilac blooms in autumn and the similarly autumnal C. goulimyi, its lilac-blue flowers so perfectly poised on slender tubes that they resemble miniature blue wine goblets. For winter colour C. imperatii and C. laevigatus are hard to beat. Both beg for close-up inspection with their delicately striped and feathered outside petals although the flowers of the former are the more dramatic in the way they change from bud to fully open. They begin as a subdued buff colour on the closed outer petals but when fully open reveal the rich violet of their inner ones – a dramatic combination. The most important group of early spring flowers arise from the many and varied forms of C. vernus and C. tommasinianus. These are valuable garden plants because they are easy to grow, they come in a wide range of colours and they proliferate rapidly into substantial colonies. Some of the best are C. tommasinianus “Blue Hills”, a local selection with lavender tinged blue flowers, and “Whitewell Purple”, which has rich, deep purple flowers.
Most crocus require little more than a neutral soil with a touch of dolomite, a dry summer rest and judicious feeding with tomato food after flowering to be kept happy and healthy. They multiply by producing offsets and also from seed and look good when grown with plants like thymes, artemesia, low-growing anemones and euphorbia and other dwarf bulbs like cyclamen, daffodils, bluebells and snowdrops. With a little planning the crocus’ great strengths of an extensive and intricate colour range, successive flowering over a large part of the year and the ability to colonize can be used to great effect by the clever gardener.
Text and photographs by Marcus Harvey of Hill View Rare Plants
Janis Ruksans’ books on bulbs, Crocuses : a complete guide to the genus and Buried Treasures : finding and growing the world’s choicest bulbs can be found at Florilegium Bookstore
Image Courtesy Timber Press ©