Crocus Celebration

At the end of yet another dreary Seattle winter, I understand why us hardcore Hort-Heads sally forth without any regard for the pouring rain just to look at tiny, ephemeral flowers.  I was delighted to attend the early-spring invitational Snowdrop Stroll at the 7-acre Dunn Gardens, an Olmsted- designed country-garden located in Northwest Seattle.  By early February, we’re starving for color, and even a small patch of cyclamen and snowdrops makes us exclaim to strangers, ‘Press on, there are more just down the path!’

The earliest planting plans by the Olmsteds in 1916 preserved many large Douglas fir trees and included large drifts of spring bulbs.  When current garden curators and landscape designers Glenn Withey and Charles Price joined the Dunn Garden, they immediately added an additional 5000 crocus bulbs to the sweeping lawns, and add several thousand every year.   I thought they were even more impressive than the snowdrops; maybe next year they can call it the ‘Crocus Constitutional‘.

Don’t tell Glenn and Charles, but this guy snuck under the rope to get a closer look!

Man in raincoat photographing flowers
Crocus nut taking a closer look

Crocus Identification

Writer E. A. Bowles, a keen gardener known for his descriptions of crocuses in ‘My Garden in Spring’,  learned his botany well, and it came in good stead when asked the name of some autumn-flowering rosy-lilac flowers.  Peering into them, he noted 6 stamens, and replied, “A Colchicum, but I am not sure which.”  He passed the test, knowing that the Colchicum is in the Lily family, with 6 stamens, while the Crocus is in the Iris family and has only 3.  Those three stamens are the same parts collected from Crocus sativus that we use in cooking as saffron. Peer into a crocus the next time and see if you can identify them.

<em>Crocus vernus</em> 'Pickwick' with 3 yellow stamens and an orange tufted stigma
Crocus vernus ‘Pickwick’ with 3 yellow stamens and an orange tufted stigma

Early Crocuses

The best choice for lawns is the woodland species crocus, Crocus tomasinianus.  Early flowering, some blooms were already starting to fade by the third week of February.  Bowles named several selections of ‘tommies’ including C. tomasinianus ‘Bobbo’, which he chose “to remind me of the sharp-eyed boy who was the first to spot it”.  It’s a lovely pale lavender tipped with white.  I wish I’ld seen it first, but alas, I’m 100 years too late.  You’re going to meet E.A. Bowles frequently, as many interesting plants are named in his honor, but we’ll save those for another post.  The delicate flowers of C. tomasinianus, like dancing fairies, reach just above the lawn on their long necks, and the deep green leaves almost disappear into the twinkling dew.

Dancing Crocus tomasinianus over a dewy lawn
Dancing Crocus tomasinianus

Withey and Price chose C. tomasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’, ‘Barr’s Purple’, ‘Whitewell Purple’, and ‘Roseus’ to put in the lower Great Lawn at the Dunn Gardens.  They were fainting by the third week of February, but when I returned this week in early March, they were completely flat.  Other worthy, but rare, selections to consider are Crocus tomasinianus f. albus, with lavender paint-flecks on pure white petals, and C. tomasinianus ‘Eric Smith’, which is easy to identify with its two extra petals.

Another early crocus is Crocus sieberi  ssp. sublimis var. tricolor with its distinctive white band in the middle.  It is known for its long bloom time and soft perfume.  I think it wasn’t warm enough on the day I visited; you can see the flowers are tightly closed. Maybe I didn’t get my nose close enough, as I didn’t notice its scent.

Tricolor crocus in lawn
Crocus sieberi ssp. sublimis var tricolor

When I returned just two weeks later, the warmer afternoon sun had encouraged the flowers to open.

open tricolor crocus
Crocus sieberi ssp. sublimis var tricolor

Ed’s Lawn

The upper lawn near the big house is affectionately known as Ed’s Lawn, named for the Dunn’s son Edward, an enthusiastic native gardener and rhododendron expert.  Ambitiously, the Withey-Price team peeled back large sections of lawn and planted thousands of deep purple C. vernus ‘Remembrance’, the violet ‘Pickwick’ and the white ‘Jeanne d’Arc’.

“For show from a distance, or for viewing out a window, the vernus hybrids can’t be beat” remarked Price.

Large sweeps of bicolored C. vernus ‘Vanguard’ make an impressive vista. I didn’t know quite their impact until I visited on a warmer afternoon; the blooms almost breathed in and out with every passing cloud.

Crocus vanguard with tiny mushroom
Crocus vernus ‘Vanguard’ has a pale lavender petticoat overlaid with a silvery chiffon skirt.

In addition to those varieties, Withey and Price included in the upper lawn,

  • C. vernus ‘Yalta’ – possibly a hybrid between tommasinianus and x Cultorum, it shows the soft bicolor form of its parentage, but seems to show some pale striping.
  • C. vernus ‘Flower Record’ – a solid medium purple with glossy edging
  • C. vernus ‘King of the Striped’ – greyish-white flowers with dark purple stripes
  • C. vernus ‘Twilight’ – an heirloom from 1910, with a deep indigo color
  • C. vernus ‘Grand Maitre‘ – an heirloom from the 1920s, in pale lavender with a silvery sheen
  • C. ancyrensis ‘Golden Bunch’ – an early blooming 1879 heirloom in a shocking tangerine yellow, several flowers per corm
  • C. flavus ‘Golden Yellow’ – a fragrant golden-yellow crocus that blooms with C. vernus, several flowers per corm
  • C. Chrysanthus ‘Blue Bird’ – a white crocus with dark purple on the outer petals.
  • C. sieberi ‘Tricolor’ – pictured above, a distinctive white band separates the purple petals and the yellow throat.
Crocus 'Golden Bunch' in the Lower Lawn
Crocus ‘Golden Bunch’ in the Lower Lawn

And in the lower Great Lawn, the yellows and whites “show up the best in the winter gloom,” remarked Price.  He included:

  • C. chrysanthus ‘Ard Schenk’ – delicate white blooms with a yellow throat
  • C. chrysanthus ‘Cream Beauty’ – a pale buttery yellow with a deep yellow throat.
  • C. chrysanthus ‘Romance’ – a creamy yellow
  • C. chrysanthus ‘Goldilocks’ – a very early bloomer (with galanthus and before vernus).  Dark yellow with a purplish-brown feathering on the outside.
  • C. chrysanthus ‘Advance’ – Distinctly yellow petticoats and dark purple over-dress.
golden yellow crocus with deep brown undertones
Crocus chrysanthus ‘Advance’
White crocus on lawn
Crocus chrysanthus ‘Ard Schenk’

Planting your own lawn

If you want to establish a crocus lawn yourself, first grow some large Douglas firs.  No, seriously, just choose a slightly-shaded, thin-lawned area.  Crocuses do well in lean alpine soils with good drainage, and are fine if they bake a little over the summer, since they are native to Greece and Turkey.

Next, rejuvenate your turf.  It’s the last time you’ll do it.  Dethatch, aerate, and overseed any bare patches.  Water well in summer.  Give the lawn one last good haircut in mid-September and put away your lawn mower. Don’t take it out again until the 1st of May.

Then, buy a hundred bulbs (or a few thousand) and cast them randomly about your lawn.  It’s up to you whether you put on fairy wings when you sprinkle them around; your neighbors aren’t usually up that early in the morning.  Dig them in at least 5-6″ to keep the squirrels from finding them.

At the Dunn Gardens in 2007, the curators peeled back the turf in concentric rings, and planted thousands of Crocus vernus bulbs in the upper garden.  Over the last 7 years, the crocuses have naturalized well.  Crocuses have a curious habit of going walkabout.  They posses a semi-transparent starch-root that pulls the corm down an inch or so each year, but also to one side.  Fortunately, if you’re comfortable letting the lawn get shaggy, you have enough sense not to regiment your plants into ordered rows.

Ed's Lawn, Rolled up | (c) Withey Price | Dunn Gardens
Ed’s Lawn, Rolled up | (c) Withey Price | Dunn Gardens

Do nothing until February, other than plan your own spring bulb viewing party.

View of lawn after planting
Ed’s Lawn, planted. Same viewpoint.

Withey and Price feed the lawn after flowering, to help the corms grow.  Finally, don’t mow until a minimum of 6 weeks after the last flower fades.  They will seed about and settle into the lawn … mowing with a collection bag will both reduce the vigor of the plant, and remove all of those seeds you want to keep!  I can’t wait to collect my own seed this year to increase my own collection.

shades of purple crocuses on a deep green lawn
Vanguard, Flower Record, and Pickwick in Ed’s Lawn

To do in July

Start drooling over catalogs and figure out your bulb order.


Picture This Photo Contest

It is with great trepidation that I submitted one of the crocus images to Saxon Holt’s resurrected Picture This Photo Contest, which you can find on the excellent blog Gardening Gone Wild with Fran Sorin and Debra Lee Baldwin.  I particularly like their ecological low-water focus, and am grateful to Saxon’s desire to teach us how to see.  See more of his work at Photo Botanic.   I hope this encourages you all to enter the contests too.



Dreadlocked Datisca

One of the grooviest plants I’ve seen is this massive Datisca cannabina growing here in the Soest Garden at the Center of Urban Horticulture.  Growing from 0 to 8ft in a single season, this exciting plant makes a huge impression in mid-summer and provides a stunning color accent in the fall.  Make sure you have enough room for it to explode.

Datisca at Soest
Datisca at Soest

Its flowers bring to mind dreadlocked hair and groovy, swirling dance music.  Plant with tall, boldly-colored perennials to get that psychedelic effect. And while the leaves are similar to the now-medically-legal-in-WA cannabis, eating these will have rather unpleasant purgative and laxative effects.

Psychadelic colors
Psychadelic colors

So plant this where you can walk underneath, or sit and watch it dance in the wind.

Datisca details
Movement and Contrast

And enjoy the color change in the fall.

Wheat colored florescence

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Izu No Hana’

Wildly popular in the Victorian era, Hydrangeas have been largely overlooked until recently.  Perhaps in typical American fashion, it’s the almost obese, Hydrangea macrophylla mop-heads that grab our attention.  However, the mop-heads are really mutant forms of the delicate Japanese lacecap variety, originally described in the late 1770s.  Daniel Hinkley observed large populations in the Chiba Prefecture south of Tokyo in the mid 1990s.  The rarely available H. macrophylla ‘Izu No Hana’, with its charming party-favor florets, was included in my 2003 copy of the sadly now-defunct Heronswood Nursery catalog.

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Izu No Hana'
Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Izu No Hana’

‘Izu No Hana’ translated, means ‘Flower of Izu’, and was discovered on the eastern Jogasaki coast of the Izu Peninsula south of Mt. Fuji and Tokyo.

Map with Izu peninsula and Tokyo indicated.  [credit wikipedia CC-SA-3.0]
Map with Izu peninsula and Tokyo indicated. [Credit wikipedia CC-SA-3.0]

Like all H. macrophylla and H. serrata, the pH and trace minerals (iron and aluminum) in the soil will affect flower color.  ‘Izu No Hana’ shows a lovely color range, with its double florets briefly opening cream on a deep blue, scrabble-worthy corymb.  They quickly take on their sweet, pale blue color on a slightly acidic soil, as is naturally found on the forest floor on the Izu peninsula, or in my mother’s garden in the Pacific Northwest.  On neutral to alkaline soil, they will be a deeper rosy pink.

Double florets on 'Izu No Hana'
Double florets on ‘Izu No Hana’

As the flowers age, they become almost Victorian mauvy-pink and and still delight late into the fall.  Although hydrangeas can tolerate full sun in the Pacific Northwest, most look their best in light shade.  Provide regular watering to get the plants established, and throughout prolonged dry spells.

Attractive pink florets in late October
Attractive pink florets in late October

H. macrophylla blooms on year-old wood, so you are typically advised to prune spent flower-heads immediately after flowering, and only dead wood in the spring.  Don’t shear your shrubs to shape them; merely remove older branches, and just a few of the branches from multi-branched stems.  I suggest leaving the pruning late, as the florets are still striking in early January, adding interest to your winter bouquets.

Flower head in early January
Flower head in early January


Sex Change

Did that get your attention?  It certainly does for the bees that pollinate Weigela middendorffiana.  One study noticed that bees visit the yellow flowers preferentially.  As the flowers age, they turn red and contain less nectar, and the bees spend less time on the red flowers.   Floral color change after fertilization is not uncommon (as in Asters, Orchids, and Fuchsias), and it is probably dependent on the age of the flower, since the pollen tubes require several days to reach the ovaries.

Yellow and Red Flowers on Weigela middendorfiana

A recent study from Monash University in Australia notes that red flowers may have evolved so they would be pollinated preferentially by birds, specifically by those that see in four colors.  The scientists noted the spectral wavelengths of over 200 flowering plants and performed phylogenetic analysis of the plants to determine their evolutionary age.    Researcher Mani Shrestha says,

“Bird pollinated flowers may have evolved red signals to be inconspicuousness to some insects that are poor pollinators, whilst also enhancing the discrimination of bird pollinators.”

Rainbow lorikeet in Australia eating a fuchsia - Image by Peter Waters
Rainbow lorikeet eating a fuchsia (Epacris longifolia)
Image: Peter Waters/Shutterstock

Weigela middendorffiana, native to China, Korea and Japan, is insect-pollinated.  I speculate that this shrub may have developed this insect-invisibility-cloak to retain the flower on the plant, allowing time for the pollen to reach the ovary.  If the flower dropped off right after pollination, the plant wouldn’t be able to reproduce!  I observed this unusual shrub in the Elisabeth C. Miller Garden near Seattle, WA .  It was in bloom in late April and covered with lumbering bumble bees.  Rare in cultivation, it is available in the United States at Joy Creek Nursery.