Hocus Crocus! Signs of Spring

For many people, the magical sudden appearance of crocus blooms are the surest sign that spring is nigh. As happy as you are to see crocus, squirrels and chipmunks are even happier.

That's because these stinking rodents crave crocus corms above all other forms of food. They can smell them in the ground and, once they locate them, never stop until they consume every last one. Funny thing is, they don't seem to bother the crocus while they bloom, only before. It's like a chipmunk preemptive strike.

One way to foil rodents is by planting crocus corms inside little wire cages. But this is a lot of time and trouble and I'd rather devote my day to more worthwhile pursuits, like searching for Atlantis or coming up with alternative energy sources based on meringue.

Absent vermin, however, crocus are indispensable to the late winter and early spring garden because they're dependable, prolific, come in lots of different colors, are a snap to care for, and naturalize quickly to form beautiful drifts.

It is written that crocus do best in cool areas, but I guess "cool" is relative, as the Lower South (Zone 7B) is where I garden and they do just fine. I do think they need a good two months or more of winter chill and well-drained soil. They do great in rock gardens, at the edge of the woods where the leaves don't pile too high, and in containers. You can also naturalize them in the lawn if you don't mind not mowing the grass until their leaves turn yellow in late spring.

Some crocus bloom in fall -- most notably the lavender-purple saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), whose orange-red stigmas (the female part of the flower that receives pollen) is the source of very expensive saffron. (Be very glad you're not a saffron-picker. Day after day handling those tweezers....yeeesh!) But most bloom in winter/spring.

I divide winter/spring crocus into two groups. The first is Dutch crocus (Crocus vernus). These are by far the most popular, as they have larger flowers than other kinds, and bloom in February and March in my area. Colors include blue, purple, white, yellow, and many are striped. The ones shown above are called 'Remembrance,' if I remember correctly, which is roughly 50% of the time, give or take 50%.

The second group is snow crocus, so called because they bloom very early, often in midwinter while snow is on the ground. Their blooms aren't as big as those of Dutch crocus, but they compensate by producing many more of them. Here are three species I really like.

Crocus sieberi. Usually the first one to bloom, often in January. Small blue or lavender flowers with golden throats.

Crocus chrysanthus. Sweetly scented blooms with bright orange stamens, lots of different colors. 'Advance' is gaudy orange and purple; 'Gipsy Girl' is bright yellow with bronzy-purple feathering; 'Ladykiller' is white inside and blue-purple outside.

Crocus tommasinianus. Flared, open flowers with orange stamens remind me of miniature water lilies. According to bulb experts Brent and Becky Heath, rodents don't like them. Colors include pink, lavender, lilac, white, and rose-purple.

Don't look to plant crocus corms now. They're only available in the fall. Most garden centers sell only Dutch crocus. A great source for all kinds is Brent & Becky's Bulbs in Gloucester, VA. Tell them the Grump sent you and maybe they'll include some chipmunk recipes.

"Crocus-Stuffed Chipmunk." Yum!

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