Sunday, 4 October 2009

Autumn Crocuses Re-visited

Last year I posted an article (20.09.2008), on this blog, about the Autumn Crocus (Crocus nudiflorus), which is such a feature of the Mersey Valley, especially the river banks, at this time of year. I related how this species is not native to Britain but comes originally from South West Europe. The conventional theory is that these plants were introduced into Britain by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem – one of the Military Orders, formed after the Siege of Jerusalem. The Knights of St. John were a medical order, also known as the Knights Hospitallers, who may have used the saffron from the Crocuses in herbal medicines. The Knights had holdings in the Southern Pennines, around Halifax, Oldham and Rochdale, and our plants may have been washed down the Pennine watershed in winter floods.

In a later article (12.03.2009) about the Spring Crocus (Crocus vernus) I related the alternative theory that our Crocuses were introduced by the Cluniac monks of Lenton Priory in Nottinghamshire. It’s interesting to note that the Lenton Priory monks had an isolated hermitage near Salford – Kersall Cell in the Irwell Valley. Earlier this year Prestwich local historian, Ian Pringle showed me the unmistakable leaves of Autumn Crocuses in the Irwell Valley near St. Mary’s Church, Prestwich, which certainly lends some credence to this theory.
There’s no reason, of course, why both theories can’t be true and maybe Autumn Crocuses were introduced by more than one religious order.

A lady named ‘Polly’, from the Halifax area, emailed me about my article and she reminded me that saffron not only has medicinal uses but can also be used for dyeing textiles. Buddhist monks, of course, wear ‘saffron robes’ – but I shudder to think how much saffron would be needed to dye a monk’s robe and how much it might cost! Nevertheless, Diana Downing, of the Manchester Field Club, has recently supplied me with a copy of a paper by the Halifax botanists, W.B. Crump and W.A. Sledge (ref. 1); this is a classic paper on C. nudiflorus in England and was originally published in 1950. This paper first proposed a link between C. nudiflorus and the Knights of St. John in the Halifax area. It also suggests, almost in passing, that saffron was used as a textile dye in Britain – and they present historical evidence from Nottinghamshire where C. nudiflorus can still be found. I don’t really need to remind readers that West Yorkshire and Lancashire were, until recent times, extremely important textile areas - so has too much been made of C. nudiflorus as a medicinal plant, and was its most important function as a source of dye for dyeing cloth with?

Leaving aside these baffling historical conundrums for a moment, let’s look at Crocuses themselves and where they come from. The genus Crocus has an entirely Old World distribution, ranging from Portugal and Morocco in the west, east to Russia and China. The majority of the 80 recognised species occur in the Balkans and Turkey, the numbers diminishing rapidly on either side of this area (ref. 2). Much of the area has a Mediterranean type climate with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters and these plants are adapted to such a climate. Many lie dormant in the hard-baked, dry earth all summer and are brought to life by the first winter rains. Some members of the genus are mountain plants and it is water from the spring snow melt which revives them – I have seen the Balkan species, C. sieberi ‘burning’ its way up through the snow on a Macedonian mountainside. Members of the genus flower between September and April with some species being autumn/winter flowering and some spring flowering. I suppose that in Britain (where none of these plants are truly native) gardeners are most used to spring flowering species such as C. vernus and its cultivars or the yellow flowered C. chrysanthus and its cultivars. Autumn flowering species, like C. nudiflorus, can come as a surprise to those British gardeners who tend to think of Crocuses as spring bulbs.

Last Sunday, and one day last week, I spent several hours recording colonies of C. nudiflorus along the banks of the Mersey between Stretford and Didsbury. I found several dozen such colonies with the number of blooms varying from just one or two to at least 100. The most intriguing site of all is on the north bank of the river, adjacent to Withington Golf Course and about a quarter of a mile from Simon’s Bridge, Didsbury. At this point the colonies of C. nudiflorus suddenly give way to three small colonies of a second species of autumn flowering Crocus, C. speciosus (Bieberstein’s Crocus)! These, like C. nudiflorus, are leafless at flowering time but with darker coloured flowers and rather exquisite ‘pencilling’ on the petals (a very handsome plant indeed). Whilst C. nudiflorus is from S.W. Europe (either side of the Pyrenees), C. speciosus is native to the Crimea, the S. Caucasus, Turkey and Iran (ref. 3). I should add that I didn’t find these plants in this locality but they were first found there, in 2006, by the Chorlton botanist, Priscilla Tolfree. I can only speculate as to how these plants arrived in that spot and my best guess is that some gardener threw the corms out near the river, they were then swept up in winter floods, deposited by the receding waters and naturalised (most modern floras include alien species, and C. speciosus is listed in most of them – so it’s probably not particularly uncommon).

My feast of Autumn Crocuses was completed when I went for a cup of tea in the cafĂ© in Fletcher Moss gardens. Underneath the trees, near the site offices, I saw that the species C. pulchellus had been planted and naturalised in the grass. Although it is apparently easy to grow this species does not appear to be very common, in wild situations, in the UK. For the record it is a bit like C. speciosus but smaller, slimmer and quite pale in colour (almost ‘ghostly’). Like a number of Crocuses it was first named by William Herbert who was a Crocus expert and a 19th century Dean of Manchester.

The left hand photograph shows some fine specimens of C. nudiflorus that I found on the edge of some playing fields near Fletcher Moss and the right hand photograph shows C. speciosus.

Dave Bishop, October 2009


1. ‘The History and Distribution of the Autumn Crocus (Crocus nudiflorus Sm.) in England’, by W.B. Crump and W.A. Sledge, ‘The Naturalist’, October – December, 1950.

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

3. ‘Bulbs’ by Roger Phillips & Martyn Rix, Pan Books, 1981.

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