Crocus (Crocus spp) are members of the iris family native to Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and western China. Each stem bears one cup-shaped, six-petaled flower with three stamens.
Various shades of purple are the usual flower color, but white and yellow also occur and the garden trade has produced a huge variety of colored cultivars (I am looking forward to bright orange crocuses next spring!) The leaves typically look like grass shoots and the entire plant is generally less than six inches tall including the flower. (New cultivars get bigger all the time though.)
There are about 80 species of crocus. The most well-known crocus in the garden trade is the dutch spring-blooming crocus Crocus vernus. It and many of its brethren, are often the first flowers to bloom in spring with Crocus tommasinianus being the very earliest. Crocus sativus, an autumn blooming variety, is the source of saffron.
Other Names Spring blooming crocus, spring crocus, early crocus, snow crocus,
See also saffron for autumn crocus, saffron crocus
Table of Contents
History and Folklore
The name crocus is krokos in Greek, karkom in Hebrew, kurkama in Aramaic, and kurkum in Arabic and Persian. It means yellow, presumably referring to the saffron spice obtained from the autumn saffron crocus although the petals of this flower are actually purple! Saffron is an extremely expensive ingredient made from the sexual organs of Crocus sativa that also produces a fabulous yellow dye.
Although many of our garden crocuses are “Dutch”, they are not native to the Netherlands but were first brought there by an ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire.
Most crocuses like full sun and well-drained soil, though there is quite a bit of variation between species. Be sure to do your research for the specific species you have.
Crocuses grow from corms, which are planted in autumn about 2-3 inches deep. They will pop up from beneath the snow in the early spring. They can be killed by a late frost though.
Autumn crocus, or saffron crocus doesn’t bloom in the spring but in the autumn. In areas colder than zone 6, autumn crocuses may not do well. After the first couple of frosts, but before winter has really set in, they should be dug up and stored covered with sand or peat moss in a cool dry place, about 50 degrees until after the danger of frost has passed in the spring.
After about 4 to 6 years, your crocuses will need to be divided. Do this by digging up the corms right after the foliage has faded, replanting them right away, or storing them in a box of sand or peat moss until autumn planting time.
Squirrels like to eat crocus corms.
Harvesting & Storage
You can pick any crocus and put it in a vase to bring its beauty into the house but it won’t last long.
Crocus sativa is an autumn blooming crocus that provides saffron. The finest saffron is made from the stigmas. The next finest grade is from the stamens. The petals can be eaten as a vegetable. Harvest the stigmas and stamens (there are 3 of each, if there aren’t, you’ve got the wrong flower) on a sunny day when the flowers are fully open. You can pick the whole flower, or simply pluck out the parts you want with your fingers or a pair of tweezers.
Lay your stigmas flat on a bit of waxed paper in a warm place to dry and store in an airtight container.
Any crocus (autumn, spring, whatever) can be used in spells for love, friendship, settling disputes, peace and divination.
Saffron can be used to make a fabulous bright yellow dye, paint or ink. You need to use a mordant such as alum to make the saffron colorfast or the color will be gone the first time you use it. It can also be used to color eggs. Use vinegar in the water to set the color.
Saffron has some traditional healing uses, but spring crocus should never be consumed.
Stigmas gathered from Crocus sativa (and only this one, no other species!) is a common flavoring in many ethnic dishes. The red-orange threads should be soaked for 20 minutes in whatever liquid you are using for your recipe and then added early in the cooking process.
Saffron is especially good with rice and is a traditional ingredient in many rice dishes.
You only need to use a few threads of saffron for cooking. Its flavor is not strong, but it doesn’t get stronger if you use more, it just wastes money.
Be sure if you are eating a crocus (petals, stamen, stigmas) that you are eating Crocus sativa. It will have six petals, three bright orangish red stigmas and three similarly colored stamen and 6-9 grass-like leaves. The petals will be violet in color, darker at the throat and somewhat veiny.