Saturday, 20 September 2008

The Autumn Crocus

If you take a walk along certain sections of the river bank, adjacent to Chorlton Ees, at the end of this month, and the beginning of the next, you should encounter the beautiful flowers of the Autumn Crocus (Crocus nudiflorus). This is probably the flower for which the Mersey Valley is most famous. It is a Greater Manchester Biodiversity Action Plan Notable Species and, in stylised form, it is the symbol of the Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service. Nevertheless, it is not confined to the Mersey Valley and tends to occur within a circle drawn around Nottingham, Warwick, Shrewsbury, Preston and Halifax.

First, it may be necessary to clear up a constant source of misunderstanding. There is another plant, in the British Flora, which sometimes bears the name, ‘Autumn Crocus’ and that is Colchicum autumnale. Although C. autumnale looks superficially Crocus-like it is not a Crocus! Colchicums are in the Liliaceae (Lily family) and have six stamens. Crocus nudiflorus, on the other hand, is a ‘true’ Crocus in the botanical family Iridaceae (the Iris family). True Crocuses have three stamens which are much shorter than the feathery, orange stigma (which is, in some species, the source of the spice, Saffron). Colchicum autumnale is called in some books, ‘Meadow Saffron’ – but this doesn’t help matters as it doesn’t produce any Saffron – and you wouldn’t want to ingest any part of it as it is highly poisonous!

Finally, it is very unlikely that that C. autumnale would occur in the Mersey Valley at all. It tends to grow in a few limestone areas – with its main stronghold in Britain being The Cotswolds. The closest place that it is likely to be found to Manchester is Whalley in Lancashire.

It all goes to show that you should never pay too much attention to a plant’s common name – only its scientific (ie. ‘Latin’) name is unambiguous and meaningful.

Crocus nudiflorus, like other Crocuses, grows from a ‘corm’ (a swollen underground stem, forming a storage organ). This particular corm is unusual because it tends to send out horizontal ‘stolons’ (creeping, underground stems); these stolons are rather like those of couch or twitch grass except that they produce new corms at their ends – hence this species is patch-forming.
The other unusual thing about C. nudiflorus is that it produces its flowers in September/October but its leaves in February/March. The leaves are thin and grass-like with a vertical white stripe; as they age they tend to elongate up to about 10 – 15 cm before they fade away.

C. nudiflorus is not a British native but is naturalised here and comes, originally, from South West France and Northern Spain. So, how did it get here? This, it turns out, is a remarkable and surprising story – but first a word about Saffron.

The word Saffron is an Anglicisation of the Arabic word, ‘Zà-ferán’, which refers to the dried stigmas of the Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus). It is the world’s most expensive spice because 4000 stigmas yield only 25g of Saffron. These must be harvested by hand and it takes 150,000 flowers and 400 hours of work to produce 1Kg of dried Saffron. These days Saffron is known mainly as a culinary spice, used in rice dishes, bread and cakes, puddings and soups. In past ages it was believed to have medical uses as well. In 1670 the German Herbalist, Ferdinand Hertodt published ‘Crocologia’, a treatise on the virtues of Saffron as a panacea. He claimed that Saffron could cure plague, melancholia, bites of venomous beasts, toothache and madness and other afflictions and maladies. Another old use for Saffron was as an anti-spasmodic ingredient in herbal remedies to treat malaria (malaria was once endemic to many European countries including low-lying, marshy areas of Britain).

It is only feasible to grow Crocus sativus on a commercial scale in the dry, south eastern corner of Britain and the town of Saffron Walden, in Essex, took its name from this now defunct trade. Luckily, C. nudiflorus is easier to grow in the Britain and its stigmas are also a source of Saffron. So who introduced it?

For most of the first half of the 20th Century the Yorkshire naturalist, W.B. Crump took a keen interest in the occurrences of C. nudiflorus around Halifax. He noticed that, around that town, the plant always grew in the meadows near the hill farmsteads and that many of these were formerly the property of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. More recently the historian Alan Marshall has shown that the occurrences of the plant in the Rochdale/Oldham area also correlate with sites once owned by the Knights of St. John. A list in a document of 1291 comprised 98 holdings which included Middleton, Oldham, Crompton, Milnrow and Healey.

The Knights of St. John were one of the so-called ‘Military Orders’, set up after the Siege and Conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. These Orders also included The Knights Templar and The Teutonic Knights.
Once the First Crusade had ‘liberated’ Jerusalem (ie. indiscriminately slain all the inhabitants, including Muslims, Jews and Christians!) the Holy City could, theoretically, be visited by Christian pilgrims from Europe. But the Holy Land was full of bloodthirsty brigands – mainly renegade (nominally) Christian soldiers and knights who preyed on the pilgrims. The Military Orders were established to protect them. The Knights of St. John also established a hospital to minister to the pilgrims’ medical needs; hence they are sometimes referred to as ‘The Knights Hospitallers’. It is highly likely that the Hospitallers were some of the most accomplished physicians of their day who could draw on European, Middle Eastern and Eastern medical traditions. It’s also likely that they were fully aware of the therapeutic applications of Saffron.

The Knights of St. John were a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean region for nearly 700 years. This history mainly consisted of one long struggle with the forces of Islam, who displaced them first from the Holy Land and then from the island of Rhodes. Their nemesis was the great Sixteenth Century Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (who viewed them as pirates and obstacles to trade). At the beginning of his reign, in 1521, he laid siege to Rhodes and the Knights capitulated the following year and eventually established themselves on Malta. In 1565, at the end of his reign, Suleiman laid siege to Malta. This was one of the bloodiest sieges in history – at its end only 600 Knights remained but Suleiman lost 30,000 troops. Given this turbulent history, and the ever present threat of annihilation, it’s not surprising that the Knights acquired land in Europe, including the North West of England, as a sort of insurance policy. Incidentally, the Order still exists today and are the founders of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade – their ‘Maltese Cross’ emblem is a familiar sight at sporting fixtures and other public events.

To sum up, then, The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem acquired land in the Southern Pennines. They grew the South Western European species, Crocus nudiflorus as a source of Saffron, which they valued for its medicinal properties. I have seen no evidence to suggest that the Knights of St. John owned land in the Mersey Valley so I strongly suspect that our plants were washed down the Pennine watershed in winter floods.

At least, that’s what I thought until, a few years ago, I read an article in a natural history magazine which added a whole new level of complication … but that will have to wait for the next instalment!

Dave Bishop, September, 2008.


1. ‘Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland’ by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter, A&C Black, 2003.

2. ‘The Crocus’ by Brian Mathew, Batsford, 1982.

3. ‘A Handbook Of Crocus and Colchicum For Gardeners’ by E.A. Bowles, Waterstones reprint ed., 1985 (first pub. 1924).

4. ‘Alan Marshall and C. nudiflorus in the Rochdale/Oldham Area’ – personal communication from Diana Downing (Manchester Field Club), 2006.

5. ‘The Knights of the Order’ by Ernle Bradford, Dorset Press, 2nd Ed., 1991.

6. ‘The Monks of War’ by Desmond Seward, Penguin Books, 2nd Ed., 1995.

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