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Garden Photo of the Day

Fabulous Fall Colchicums

Loving this group of autumn-blooming bulbs

Today’s photos come from Kathy Purdy, a great collector of fall-blooming colchicum.

I garden in Oxford, New York, which I like to say has a Zone 5 winter (sometimes even Zone 6!) with a Zone 4 growing season (late spring frosts and early autumn frosts). I first encountered colchicums when we moved into our first home, a 19th-century farmhouse, over 25 years ago. Some gardener before me had planted Colchicum × byzantinum among the peonies.

 C. × byzantinum at my current home

At first I was content to learn the weird ways of colchicums. Their leaves come up in early spring. The colchicum leaves are in the back. In mid-May they are an attractive feature of the garden.

 

As the weather warms up, the colchicums go dormant, meaning the leaves turn a sickly yellow, eventually flop over, and turn brown. The yellowing colchicum leaves are not the most attractive companion for the blue love-in-a-mist, and they will only get worse before finally disappearing. This is enough to put some gardeners off from growing these lovely fall-blooming plants, but I prefer to call it a design challenge. There are many ways I have met this challenge, but the easiest is to plant them on the outskirts of hemerocallis, heuchera, and hosta clumps.

Back to my story. Once I had come to understand the colchicum lifestyle, I started looking for and growing others. I soon learned that the few companies that sold colchicums didn’t sell the same ones every year, which encouraged me to buy any I didn’t already have as soon as I came across them.

I have over fifty different kinds in my garden now. Some have already finished blooming for this year, and some have yet to start. But here are a few that are blooming right now.

C. × agrippinum has very distinct checkering (which botanists call tessellation) on its petals. Other colchicums have this checkering, but it’s more subtle.

‘Beaconsfield’ is one of the more brilliantly colored colchicums in my collection. It looks great backed by golden lemon balm . . .

. . . and it really knocks your socks off when planted en masse.

‘Harlekijn’ is probably the weirdest looking one in my collection. A harlequin is a jester, and from a certain angle, ‘Harlekijn’ looks a bit like a jester’s cap.

‘Poseidon’ is a vigorous grower, and it has another attribute I prefer in a colchicum: a purple tube. (Colchicums have a tube of petal tissue instead of a bona fide stem.)

‘Antares’ is delicately flushed with pink. There are pure white colchicums as well.

At over a foot tall, ‘World Champion’s Cup’ is the biggest colchicum I grow. It’s surrounded by Primo Black Pearl heuchera, with a ferny bit of mountain fringe for contrast.

 

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Comments

  1. User avater
    meander_michaele 10/01/2018

    Hi, Kathy, as soon as I saw today's GPOD email titled Fabulous Fall Colchicums, your name immediately came to mind and, lo and behold, yes, it is your collection...more colorful and abundant than ever! I love the color pattern on ‘Harlekijn’ and its unique shape only adds to its appeal. Thanks so much for sharing such lovely pictures of these fall beauties.

    1. KathyPurdy 10/01/2018

      So glad you enjoyed them, Michaele!

  2. User avater
    treasuresmom 10/01/2018

    I adore colchicums so much so that even though I am zone 8b in the deep south, I ordered some to give them a try. They were blooming in the box when it came which I knew was not to be expected. They did not return though I encouraged them as much as I could. I love, love, love your collection!

    1. KathyPurdy 10/01/2018

      They sometimes do bloom in the box. That doesn't harm them. I just plant them at the proper depth, letting the flowers stick up as far as they've emerged so far, and of course being careful not to snap them off! Colchicums are able to flower while out of the ground and some people deliberately set them on an attractive plate (even a cake stand!) and let them bloom in the house before they plant them. If you want to try again, amend the soil so it's very free-draining. Heavy clay, holding moisture, sometimes does them in. But sometimes its the humidity, and there's not much you can do about that. I have a friend in Tennessee who says 'Rosy Dawn' does the best for her.

  3. Chris_N 10/01/2018

    Beautiful plants and a botany lesson, too. What more can one ask for on a Monday morning? Thanks, Kathy, for sharing these gems. I keep saying I am going to add some colchicums and now I have no excuse not too. Love the tesselation on the C. × agrippinum.

    1. KathyPurdy 10/01/2018

      I hope you do try them! They are delivered earlier than most other fall-planted bulbs, so you need to order them before September. McClure and Zimmerman have the best prices, Odyssey Bulbs and Daffodils and More have the most unusual ones, and Brent and Becky's Bulbs and White Flower Farm fall somewhere in between.

  4. Maggieat11 10/01/2018

    Kathy, Thanks for posting these photos. I have one variety... didn't know there was so many! I just love the Harlekijn! Hmmm, I may have to make another purchase!
    Any chance of a garden visit sometime?

    1. KathyPurdy 10/01/2018

      Maggie, see the sources I just mentioned to Chris_N. I got my 'Harlekijn' from Daffodils and More. I love to have garden visitors. There are still enough colchicums to be worth a trip, if you are pretty local to me and can come this week. I had an Open Garden for them last year and perhaps I will do that again next year. For now, it's "by appointment".

  5. paiya 10/01/2018

    Kathy, you have stimulated me to try growing these colchicum- each one that you displayed is beautiful!

    1. KathyPurdy 10/01/2018

      So glad you enjoyed them. I've written a lot more about them on my website: http://bit.ly/cOJdAN

  6. Dvngardener 10/01/2018

    Thanks Kathy! I haven’t noticed Autumn Crocus Featured in the past on Gardening photo of the day, but I loved seeing yours! I have some also, that I bought quite a few years back and planted to see what would happen. They have multiplied prolifically, and now I have enough to move around and share. I have yet to find the perfect planting companion, but I am thinking of trying some Heuchera next year.

    1. KathyPurdy 10/01/2018

      Dvngardener, there are true crocuses that bloom in the fall (such as Crocus speciosus), so I prefer not to call colchicums autumn crocus. They have other common names, such as naked ladies(!). I'm glad they've multiplied for you. My best planting solution is to plant them behind 'Dark Towers' penstemon. The penstemon blooms when the colchicum leaves are declining and hides those dying leaves well. Then, in late August or early September I cut down the penstemon flower stalks. The colchicum flowers are clearly visible behind the remaining penstemon leaves. But--you can't have a garden of just colchicums and penstemons--at least I can't. None of the other companion plants work quite as well, but they work well enough for me.

      1. Dvngardener 10/01/2018

        Thanks For the feedback Kathy! I made a note to get some Penstemon Dark Towers next year. I also thought that I might try combining it with a dark foliage Actaea, Pink Spike that I have, and also an Astilbe that I saw that I like the foliage of, Delft Lace.

  7. PatinMapleValley 10/01/2018

    Thanks so much for the very informative and beautiful offering for us today. I really love the feedback, and seeing the answers to questions I had. Need to mark my calendar now for the next opportunity to order colchicums!

    1. KathyPurdy 10/01/2018

      They are offered in the same catalogs as the daffodils and tulips, usually under "Other" or "Miscellaneous". The catalog will state the "order by" date. As long as you're already getting one of the catalogs I listed for Chris_N, you probably won't need a reminder. Glad you enjoyed it.

  8. BTucker9675 10/01/2018

    In my previous garden in northern NJ, I had these planted in the small "woodland" section of my back garden and would leave the fall leaves on the ground there year round - they helped hide the not so lovely foliage as it died back. Since it was purposefully left "natural" it looked quite nice - at least to me! Also had trillium and jack in the pulpit as well as hostas in the same area. I haven't tried them here in NC where I am still learning to deal with the awful red clay...

    1. KathyPurdy 10/01/2018

      Yes, you might need to grow them in a raised bed or a trough. The book Bulbs by Phillips and Rix shows photos of them growing in their native habitat. That might give you an idea of how to amend the soil to make them happy.

  9. Luvfall 10/01/2018

    Wow Kathy, I had no idea there was such variety. I’m going to have to pay more attention to the miscellaneous section of those catalogs. Your suggestions of cover plants are greatly appreciated. World Champion’s Cup has really caught my eye - is its foliage also super-sized?

    1. KathyPurdy 10/01/2018

      No, not really. The only place I have ever seen that offered is Daffodils and More.

      1. Luvfall 10/05/2018

        Thank you.

  10. darylsavage 10/01/2018

    Thanks Kathy for all the advice. I love colchicum, and have had 'waterfall' for years. I have been meaning to get more for the past few years, but I always forget to order before Sept. I also dislike the foliage dying back. I appreciate a GPOD where the gardener featured actually answers the comments, like the old days.

    1. KathyPurdy 10/02/2018

      You have to think of those leaves as a design challenge, not a flaw. (Or in computer-speak, it's a feature, not a bug!) Maybe more contributors would respond to comments if they got an email notification that new comments were there. That's the way it works with my blog; it's built into the system. For GPOD, I have been coming back to this page several times a day and reloading it, to see if there are any new comments.

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