Sissinghurst – Crazy for Colchicums

I am guilty, guilty of having twice visited Sissinghurst this year and not having posted anything about it. Had this been any other garden I might have been forgiven, but on both occasions Sissinghurst was in its prime and more than worthy of sharing with you. I may still do so in the depths of winter when we all need a little joy. For now I will assuage my guilt by not dallying over an account of my third visit, which will extend over two posts. The first celebrates a bulbous flower, sometimes mistaken for a crocus, which makes an appearance just as everything else in the garden is on the wane. That flower is the colchicum, variously known as ‘meadow saffron’ or ‘naked ladies’.

Sissinghurst's splendid tower rises from the sward of the freshly scythed orchard
Sissinghurst’s splendid Tudor tower rises from the sward of the freshly scythed orchard – a splash of pink at the foot of the right-hand tower is created by colchicums

Both common names are easily understood, if not very accurate. In England we have a native colchicum, Colchicum autumnale, which populates areas of rich meadowland. Its similarity to the non-native autumn flowering saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, lends this pretty bulb the epithet, ‘meadow saffron’. Colchicums flower before producing leaves and are frequently pink-flowered, hence the fabulously suggestive nickname ‘naked ladies’, which I rather like. (You can have a lot of fun just replacing every instance of the word colchicum in this post with ‘naked ladies’ – go on, I dare you!)

Colchicum autumnale, the meadow saffron, in Sissinghurst's herb garden
Colchicum autumnale, the meadow saffron, in Sissinghurst’s herb garden

At Sissinghurst Colchicum autumnale earns itself a place in the herb garden by dint of its medicinal uses in treating gout and Mediterranean fever. However, all parts of the plant are poisonous in the wrong hands and definitely should not be eaten.

Backlit colchicums explode from the freshly cut grass beneath Sissinghurst's venerable apple trees
Backlit colchicums explode from the freshly cut grass beneath Sissinghurst’s venerable apple trees

Sissinghurst’s colchicums demonstrate exactly where these wonderfully hefty bulbs prefer to grow. The translucent goblets erupt from the sward of the orchard and from sun-kissed patches of earth in the rose garden where they remain undisturbed for years. A little shelter is helpful when siting the bulbs, as some less robust varieties can be laid low by boisterous autumn weather, which I find heartbreaking to see.

Forming expansive clumps, colchicums love a  warm, dry, sheltered spot
Forming expansive clumps, colchicums love a warm, dry, sheltered spot

Colchicums are mostly native to warmer, sunnier parts of the world than England, so like to be on the dry side during summer and moist, but not wet, in winter. The bulbs should be planted where they can build up into large clumps and so that the foliage, which appears in early spring, can be concealed as it dies down in summer. This isn’t too much of challenge for most gardeners. Alternatively, it is possible to cultivate colchicums in pots, using a 50:50 mix of grit and John Innes no.2. I am experimenting this autumn with three bulbs of Colchicum ‘Water Lily’ AGM, a double-flowered, pink hybrid, which I would find hard to place elsewhere in the garden.

Colchicum 'Conquest' in a quiet corner of the rose garden
Colchicum ‘Conquest’ in a quiet corner of Sissinghurst’s rose garden. The emerging flowers can be prone to slug damage

The flowers associate well with ferns, grasses and sedges provided their foliage is not too leggy come autumn. Both C. autumnale and C. speciosum are robust enough to compete in semi-rough grass, which must be left unmown between August and June when the leaves disappear. There are a great number of species and named varieties available, most of which I find very hard to tell apart, but for starters I’d recommend C. autumnale ‘Nancy Lindsay’ AGM and plain C. speciosum for pink flowers and C. speciosum ‘Album’ AGM for pure white flowers. I shall let you know how I get on with C. ‘Water Lily’.

With their fresh, lusty goblets rising unhindered from the ground each autumn, colchicums provide a much needed shot in the arm for a garden when all else is fading. Sissinghurst is not a garden which requires a shot in the arm at any time of year, but even here the sight of them rampaging beneath the ripening apples and fading roses is a refreshing tonic.

All photographs taken at Sissinghurst Castle on August 24th 2014

Colchicum specious sports pinkish purple flowers with bright white throats and yellow stamens
Colchicum speciosum sports pinkish-purple flowers with bright white throats and yellow stamens