The Gardener's Apprentice

Striped Crocus

You might think that after thousands of years of coming up too soon and getting frozen, the crocus family would have had a little sense knocked into it.

The words of twentieth century writer and humorist Robert Benchley make me smile every time I plant my crocus bulbs.  Still, as I carve planting holes out of the recalcitrant earth, I am glad that the family has not “had a little sense knocked into it” over the millennia.  Nothing is as reassuring to winter-weary souls as the appearance of the first spring crocuses.

This year I have a passion for big, striped Dutch crocuses because they look especially joyful in March.  For reasons known only to the crocuses and their geneticist friends, stripes are less common than solid colors and the majority of striped varieties are purple and white.  You can find yellow stripe-bearing crocuses, like the variety ‘Zwanenburg’, but the stripes are bronze and fairly subtle.  I would love to see a yellow and white, awning-striped crocus, but such a thing does not exist—yet.  For exuberance and big visual impact, purple and white is the way to go.

I am very fond of Crocus vernus ‘King of the Striped’, a true heirloom that made its debut in 1880.  Marketers use all kinds of language to describe its color, but the chalice-shaped blossoms are medium purple to blue-purple with white or gray-white stripes.  Examined closely, the stripes look more like fine feathering, but if you are viewing crocus from high above, “stripes” is a good enough description.  I have seen a very similar crocus marketed as ‘Striped Beauty’.

‘Pickwick’, introduced in 1925, is another purple and white striped variety that seems a little different from ‘King of the Striped’.  Both feature stripes or feathering on the outside surfaces of the six petals, but the inside of each of the three outer petals on ‘King of the Striped’ appear to be solid purple.  All ‘Pickwick’s petals seem to be feathered on both back and front.  This is only a minor distinction and may not be apparent on every blossom of ‘Pickwick’ or ‘King of the Striped’, but it might help you tell them apart.  Both varieties feature a prominent central array of golden-orange stamens.

Most people who love crocuses plant two species. The first to appear are the little snow crocuses or Crocus chrysanthus, which bloom about the same time as snowdrops in the late winter or early spring.  After the snow crocuses finish their run, the larger, Dutch crocuses, or Crocus vernus appear.  They are bigger and flashier, trumpeting spring’s arrival and serving as a prelude to the symphony of daffodils, tulips and other showy spring performers.

Various species of crocus are native to a wide swath of southern Europe and Asia minor, from Spain to Afghanistan.  They made their way into the Netherlands via Istabul, around 1560 and have been cultivated and loved by gardeners ever since.  The large Crocus vernus—Latin for “spring crocus”—found their way to Europe in the nineteenth century and by century’s end had become fixtures in the colorful but labor intensive carpet bedding schemes that were popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

The vogue for carpet bedding comes and goes, but Dutch crocuses remain in-demand because they are both cheap and easy.  For the price of a couple of good-size daffodil or tulip bulbs, you can buy a big handful of Crocus vernus.  The initial investment grows over time because happy crocuses multiply into clumps and can survive all kinds of neglect.  On my neighborhood walks, I frequently see crocuses from long-forgotten garden beds persisting in lawns.

Crocuses are also perfect for containers.  I always plant a few in the big pots that I use for summer annuals.  To make a nice spring array, fill the container of your choice with potting soil to within eight inches of the top.  Position tulip or daffodil bulbs atop the soil and cover with about three inches of additional soil.  Position crocus bulbs on top of this layer and cover with enough soil so that the tops of the crocus bulbs are submerged to a depth of three or four inches.  Water and place the container outdoors in a garden bed, or on a porch or terrace.  When spring arrives, the crocuses will push up first, followed by the tulips or daffodils.  When all of the bulbs have bloomed, you can either put the container aside or clear the container for re-use by lifting the bulbs and storing in a cool dry place to await fall replanting.

‘Pickwick’ or ‘King of the Striped’ look wonderful paired with solid-colored Dutch crocuses like deep purple ‘Flower Record’ or the lovely white ‘Jeanne d’Arc’.  Being small, the flowers are perfect for rock gardens, the fronts of beds and borders, or naturalized in lawn areas.  As with all spring ephemerals, you should let the grass-like crocus foliage turn brown before removing it after the blooms fade.  Fortunately this process is not as unsightly with crocuses as it is with some of the larger spring flowers.  Still, if even a small amount of untidiness gives you palpitations, plant crocuses in places where the emerging foliage of larger perennials will hide their final act.

If for some reason you have neglected to buy Dutch crocuses for next spring’s garden, you can still find some discounted ones at many garden centers.  Some of the online retailers also have a few left.  If you are harboring unplanted ones, now is the time to get outside and install them.  Spring is always closer than you think.