Saffron crocus vs. meadow saffron

The crocuses in my garden, which have provided so much delight over the past weeks, are now on the wane, rather eclipsed by the simultaneous blooming of countless daisies. I’ve just gotten around to confirming, rather to my disappointment, that they’re not saffron crocuses at all. What I’ve got are autumn crocuses (Colchicum autumnale) rather than Crocus sativus, the saffron crocus. The autumn crocus turns out, rather confusingly, not to be a crocus at all. It is also better known in English as meadow saffron, despite the fact that it is unrelated to saffron. (This linguistic confusion is another justification for the use of Linnaeus’s Latin binomial system.) Among its other names are: Bulbus agrestis, ‘wild bulb’ and Mort au chien, lit. ‘death to dog’ (Gerard’s Herball, 1636); naked ladies (Mrs. M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, 1931); and upstart (John Lust, The Herb Book, 1974).

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Autumn crocus or meadow saffron, Colchicum autumnale, in my garden.

How does one distinguish which is which? First of all the saffron crocus has 3 very long stigmata (the female filaments) of an unmistakable bright red-orange. (The meadow saffron or colchicum does not have these.) The long red filaments are what are gathered and dried to produce the world’s most expensive spice. One ounce of high grade Persian (Iranian) saffron sells at US$125. The price of an ounce tin of La Mancha, Spain superior grade quality saffron is double: US$252. How many filaments to an ounce? About 16,000, or roughly the stigmata from 5,334 saffron bulbs. Sadly I realize I don’t have the beginnings of an upscale spice smallholding, though I did see saffron bulbs on sale at Leroy Merlin in Gandia two weeks ago. The bulbs are also on sale (4 bulbs at €2.60, reduced from €3.95) at the online distributor planetahuerto.es.

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Saffron crocus with 3 long red-orange stigmata. Photo: Gernot Katzer.

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Three red-orange filaments (stigmata) absent = autumn crocus or meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale).

Gerard’s Herball noted that “medow saffron grow[s] in England in great aboundance in fat and fertile medowes, … about Bathe, as also in the medows neere to … Shepton Mallet, in the medowes about Bristoll … and likewise in great plenty two miles from Northampton.” (I mention these place names as I have friends living there who may appreciate knowing that once upon a time meadow saffron grew abundantly nearby.) Meadow saffron not only flourishes in moist meadows in England, but also throughout Europe, chiefly on limestone (the bedrock of my garden, which explains the wild population I’ve got here).

Mistaking the meadow saffron or colchicum for the edible saffron crocus is an error one makes just once. In other words it is fatal. The colchicum bulb and seeds are the source of a toxic alkaloid called colchicine. In medically prescribed controlled doses for a specific short period (usually no more than a few days), it is administered to reduce the excruciating pain of a gout flare. It does not actually do anything to lower the body’s uric acid levels that lead to the pain of a gout attack. It is not a cure for gout: what it does is relieve the pain to a tolerable level, sometimes by the end of the first day to after a few days. It is so toxic that Nicholas Culpeper, author of the Complete Herbal, first published in 1653, said:

Colchici. Of Meadow Saffron. The roots are held to be hurtful to the stomach, therefore I let them alone.”

Culpeper was probably echoing Gerard’s advice of a few decades earlier: “…those which have eaten of the common Medow Saffron must drinke the milke of a cow, or else death presently ensueth. The roots of all the sorts of Mede Saffrons are very hurtful to the stomacke, and being eaten they kill by choaking as Mushromes do, according unto Dioscorides; whereupon some have called it Colchicum strangulatorium.”

 John Lust cautions: “The whole plant is poisonous, and small amounts of the bulb or seeds can cause death. Not for home use under any circumstances” [emphasis mine].

The leaves of autumn crocus or meadow saffron resemble those of wild garlic or ramsons (Allium ursinum, known in German as Bärlauch). They appear in spring (without the helpful distinguishing feature of the flowers, which arise from the ground leafless in autumn) and have also been reported to cause deaths.

The wide berth that Lady Brown and Hunter have given the autumn crocuses in the garden is comforting. Do they by some chance sense that it is something they must not ingest, let alone touch or be near to? I have observed both of them nipping the tops of young fresh grass elsewhere in the garden, quite far from the autumn crocuses, though they do sniff the grass most thoroughly before doing so. If they go on doing this, there may be no need to mow the grass at all. 🙂 Perhaps like cats that feel out of sorts, they may need greens every so often as aids to digestion.

I did notice that Hunter was rather curious about the autumn crocuses at first, giving them a prolonged observation. Perhaps he was trying to see what it was about these pale purple flowers that his female human adopter found sufficiently fascinating to gaze at and photograph from different angles.

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