The genus Colchicum gets its name from an early kingdom (sixth to first century B.C.) of what is now western Georgia along the east end of the Black Sea. Colchis was home of Medea and a destination of Jason and the Argonauts. The old kingdom represents the eastern boundary of the geographic distribution of Colchis autumnale, which receives its scientific binomial in 1753 from Linneaus himself.
Most Americans know the plant as the “autumn crocus” for its crocus-like flowers and odd habit of sending up a flower from the tuber-like corm between August and November and then sending the leaves up later. Many members of the Colchicaceae family have this habit. To make matters somewhat confusing some actual crocus species flower in the fall as well. (Furthermore some Colchicum species send up leaves in the spring and flower in the fall, and some flower and send up leaves and flowers at the same time.) The Crocus and Colchicum are quite unrelated, however; real croci are members of the order Aspargales, while Colchicaceae is in the order Liliales. It is a reasonably good example of convergent evolution; two unrelated taxa develop similar appearances.
It is perhaps not coincidental that Medea is usually represented as a sorceress, helping Jason to kill various monsters and people with her potions, and the leaves, seeds and corms of Colchicum are laced with the alkaloid colchicine, which at higher dosages is poisonous, but has been used in folk and modern medicine to treat a variety of ailments, including gout. It has even been investigated as an anti-cancer drug (but what hasn’t?).
Another fascinating use of colchicine is in the production of new plant varieties. Prof. T. Ombrello of Union County Community College in New Jersey writes:
Another major use of colchicine is based on the chemical’s effect on cell division in animals and plants. It interrupts the cell division process of mitosis, and as a result some treated cells become polyploids (having some multiple of their normal compliment of genetic information). Plant breeders have found this to be particularly useful in the development of new cultivated varieties of plants. Numerous plants available to the consumer today are the result of colchicine treatments to induce polyploidy. Interestingly enough, the polyploid inducing and anti-inflammatory effects of colchicine may have a common denominator: the chemical’s disruption of a cellular component called the microtubules.
Colchicum‘s beauty and exotic, leafless appearance has contributed to its long-lasting popularity as an ornamental. There are many, many cultivars of C. autumnale alone, but only a few other species out the 45 in the genus – C. speciosum, C. album, C. corsicum and C. agrippinum – have attracted horticulturalists. There are about 15 genera in the family, which distributed through Europe into west Asia and then down through eastern Africa to the Cape of Good Hope. (According to the USDA, over the years C. autumnale has been naturalized in a few areas in the U.S. and Canada.)
Growing Colchicum from corms is apparently very easy as long as they are planted in well-drained areas in dappled shade (under large trees with high canopies). They can forced by simply leaving them on the windowsill. Growing them from seed, however, requires soaking them for a few days prior to sowing them, and they should scattered in a grit mixture. One horticulturalist recommended sowing C. speciosum seeds in a pots in a cold frame, predicting that they may take as long as 18 months to germinate (they require a summer drought and a winter cooling period). Once these seedlings have germinated they make take three to six years to send up their first flowers.
I have seen isolated bunches of Colchicum planted and found them to be startlingly beautiful because they are such are surprise at this time of the year and because they are often under over hanging branches, which adds to a sense of mystery. However, professionals recommend planting hundreds or thousands of them in wide drifts across open areas under large trees (your classic “park-like setting’ a la Olmsted). The petals of the flowers are translucent, so on a bright autumn day the ground can appear to be glowing with lavender light.