What is an Autumn Crocus? - Home Stratosphere

What is an Autumn Crocus?

Learn more about the autumn crocus including its characteristics, growing conditions, and its vital uses. We've included great tips on how to grow these valuable ornamentals that are a wonderful addition to rock gardens.

Beautiful light purple autumn crocus flowers in focus popping their heads out of the cold soil on a cloudy day

Colchicum Autumnale

Everyone accepts that flower season is in the spring and summer. We bear the long winter and wait for those spring blossoms, we revel in the late summer blooms, and grieve when the autumn leaves start to fall away.

Gardeners tend to focus a lot on summer perennials, but what if we could extend the flowering season into autumn? Let me introduce you to the autumn crocus.

Colchicum autumnale, otherwise known as meadow saffron, saffron crocus (though it is not at all a saffron herb), or naked ladies, this flowering plant is a member of the iris family (Iridaceae), and is not actually a true crocus, nor a member of the crocus family.

The autumn crocus is a much needed splash of color in the garden before the cold months start to settle in. The plant actually gets its name, the naked lady, because flowers emerge without any leaves to accompany them!

The autumn crocus is a very popular ornamental plant in temperate areas, and are remarkably easy to care for in terms of flowering plants. Keep reading to discover if it will be the next addition to your green space!

Table of Contents

Related: Sun-Loving Flowers | Water-Loving Flowers | Shade-Loving Flowers | Types of Flowers | Types of Flowers by Color | Types of Flowers by Alphabet | Types of Flower Colors | Blue and Violet Flowers

Two dark purple autumn crocus flowers sprouting out of dead yellow grass

What do Autumn Crocuses Look Like?

Flowers

The autumn crocus is rather unique. Whereas most plants will first grow foliage, followed by flowers, followed by seed or fruit, this species will bloom before the leaves ever emerge.

Autumn crocus flowers emerge at the end of a 4-6 inch flower stalk with a single blooming flower. Each crocus flower is about a 2 inch, goblet shaped flower.

Depending on the different cultivars, an autumn crocus flower will emerge either a light pink or purple color, though there are some that emerge as white flowers.

Autumn crocuses are very similar in appearance to the spring crocus (colchicum speciosum), with the main difference being that the former has a group of 6 stamen, whereas the latter has a group of 3 stamen.

Indicated by the plants name, the autumn crocus blooms in the late summer or early fall — just in time to brighten your property as other early summer perennials are heading out for the season. Their blooming season is a short one, only 2-3 weeks.

Looking down at beautiful light purple autumn crocus flowers growing in a group of five growing out of the soil on a sunny day

Leaves

Autumn flowering crocus leaves emerge in the spring time, after the flowers blossomed in early autumn growing season. The leaf will emerge upright and reach 8-14 inches in length.

Leaves resemble the leaves of a tulip plant, being long, narrow, and sword-like in shape. They are a matte, green color, and fade to yellow as they die out for the season.

Because of its leaf pattern, colchicum autumnale can sometimes be confused with wild garlic (allium ursinum). It is very important to be sure about your plant identification, as wild garlic is edible, whereas autumn crocus is inedible.

Growth Pattern

Starting below the soil, the autumn crocus grows from a corm, which is an underground bulb root system. From each corm grows between 1-10 flower stalks from which the blossoms will emerge.

Once an autumn crocus flowers, the plant will go into hibernation for the winter. Once early spring arrives, that’s when it’s the foliage’s time to shine!

Though the foliage is by now means attractive when it starts to die back, it is important not to clip them away. This is because the decaying leaves provide vital nutrients for the underground corm, which are needed for the approaching flowering season.

Where is Autumn Crocus Native to?

The autumn crocus is a native plant to much of temperate Europe, Asia, and North Africa. The plant originated in Great Britain and Ireland, and the growing range extended to Portugal and the Ukraine.

Due to its resilience and unspecific growing conditions, it has been naturalized in many other places, like New Zealand, the Baltic States, and the United States and Canada as well. Autumn crocuses are hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9.

Wild autumn crocus popping out of dying autumn grass with beautiful fall landscape in the background

How do you Propagate an Autumn Crocus?

Now that we know a little bit about the thing, it’s time to learn about just how easy growing autumn crocus is.

Luckily, crocus plants are just as easy to propagate as they are easy to maintain after. These guys just want to grow, and literally any gardener can succeed in growing autumn crocus.

Pick a Time

The best time of year for planting autumn crocus is in the late summer or early fall. The corm comes equipped with all of the nutrients the plant needs to grow, so it isn’t too picky.

Pick a Spot

Sometimes, the trickiest part of propagation is picking the absolute perfect spot for your garden specimen.

In the case of the autumn crocus, it will be super happy if you pick a spot that receives full sun to partial shade. Soil should be nice and well drained.

Another important aspect the spot should have, is protection. The flowers and leaves of this plant are rather fragile, so help it out by planting it near or below some taller plants. This way it will be sheltered by strong winds and other harsh weather.

Time to Plant

Once the time of year has arrived and you’ve picked the perfect location, it will then be time to dig a hole! Autumn crocus corms only need to be planted 2-4 inches in the soil.

And that’s pretty much it! Once the corm is in the soil, there really isn’t much to do in terms of care or maintenance. The plant may need periodic watering if you happen to live in an arid area, but otherwise, these guys need nothing from you.

Amazing tall flower stems with purple autumn crocus flowers sprouting out of a garden in the fall

What are the Growing Conditions of an Autumn Crocus?

Soil Type

The autumn crocus is not picky in any way. This remarkable fall flower can tolerate nearly every single soil type, as long as it is partially well drained.

Water Level

We’re just going to keep shocking you with how low maintenance this plant is. The autumn crocus does not need to be watered! It is super duper drought tolerant, and only needs to be watered if there happens to be an exceptional dry spell.

Sun Exposure

Autumn crocuses are a sun loving plant. This means that they will thrive in places where they receive a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight per day. With that being said, there are also completely tolerant to partial shade as well.

Amazing cluster of white autumn crocus flowers growing at the base of a tree

Temperature

If all of that we’re already thrilling enough, the autumn crocus is also wonderfully cold hardy! The plant simply goes dormant in the winter.

If you live in an exceptionally cold place (*cough* Canada *cough*) the corms can be dug up and kept in a dry and cool place during the winter, then planted again come spring.

Fertilizer

If the soil on your property happens to be very poor and low in nutrients, help your autumn crocus out by incorporating the soil with some compost to help increase the nutrient content.

Otherwise, you can add bonemeal or an organic, high phosphorous fertilizer during the initial growing season of your plant, and again in autumn.

Pruning

Perhaps the lowest maintenance feature of this plant is the requirement for pruning. There is absolutely no need to prune an autumn crocus!

In fact, the foliage must be left to decompose at the foot of the plant, because the decaying leaves provide vital nutrients to help keep the corm happy and fed.

Intolerances

Out of all the flowering plant species we’ve covered so far on this website, there is no other plant that requires less from you than the autumn crocus.

They aren’t intolerant to anything! They can be completely ignored and they will thrive all the same. It would take a phenomena to damage this plant.

Beautiful shot of hidden light purple autumn crocus flowers growing in green grass

How are Autumn Crocuses Used?

Ornamental Plant

The autumn crocus is a very valuable plant for your garden. They are a much needed splash of life and color that arrives just in time to your fall garden, just as the summer perennials are going to sleep for the season.

They are valued for their extremely easy care, their beautiful flowers, and the nutrients the provide to the soil. They can be used as a potted plant, a container plant, and make for a wonderful rock garden feature plant as well.

Medicinal Plant

The bulb-like corm of the autumn crocus contains colchicine. This is a chemical that has long been used for its medicinal properties, and is approved for the treatment of gout. But remember, do not consume any plant part unless you are absolutely sure that it is safe and properly identified.

The very first record of using an autumn crocus corm medicinally can be found in the Eber Papyrus, which is the oldest known medical text written by the Ancient Egyptians around 1550 BC.

There are only a handful of other plants to have such a long standing medical record, and the autumn crocus is a proud member of this group!

Side view of a tall thin autumn crocus stems with young flowers opening up in a wooded area

FAQs

Scroll to Top