Saturday, March 19, 2011

Crocus cavils

Yesterday, notwithstanding the six inches of snow we received 4 days earlier, the temperatures turned a balmy 76F and my giant "Dutch crocuses" (heavily hybridized Crocus vernus) suddenly bloomed.

Crocus 'Remembrance'
I wait every year for these crocuses to be those first prolific little flowers to brighten up my beds, but in truth, I confess that I'm not overly fond of them.  Now, before my readers tune me out entirely, I admit that my misgivings about Spring crocus are few and these little darlings do have their fine points, some of which are not widely known.  I know for instance, from Louise Beebe Wilder's writings, that Dutch crocus have a really nice scent if you lay down on the ground at their level, and having done so at risk of being observed and judged harshly by the neighbors, I can confirm Ms. Wilder's observations.  Gardeners in general seem to rarely pick these 6 inch beauties and raise them up to sniffing level as they would do with most other flowers, so those who haven't read Wilder do not seem to know this fact (I'll leave that alone now since this is not the time or place for garden literature snobbery).  Perhaps picking these diminutive blooms smacks too closely to plant abuse for many gardeners, but however you go about it, give them a sniff.  Children, as noted by the esteemed writer Henry Mitchell in The Essential Earthman, seem to be particularly prone to pick these giant colorful blooms and thus are often more familiar with the scent of these beauties.  The quickest road to hell, quoting Mr. Mitchell, is to "growl at a child for picking crocuses."  Henry seems to share my general ambivalence about crocuses though, calling them "vulgar" and recommending more stringent measures ("a tub of boiling oil") for children who pick irises or lilies without permission.

Crocus 'Pickwick'
 One of my minor complaints against Dutch crocus is that the Kansas winds tear the blooms to pieces quickly if they are not in a sheltered spot.  Many garden writers, such as Lauren Springer in The Undaunted Garden,  make a strong case for planting crocuses freely in warm season grass lawns such as the buffalograss that closely surrounds my house, but I've found that the crocus survive to please me only in my cultivated beds sheltered from the prevailing Spring winds of the Flint Hills.  Shortly after moving to this land, I planted over 100 Dutch crocus in the center patch of my circular driveway, but their blooms survived on this flat plateau only a day or two, if that, before the winds swept them away. The overall mass effect also dwindled over five or so years to nothing, despite my efforts to refrain from cutting the grass in this area until early summer.  I surmise that between the summer heat and the surrounding prairie grasses, they just didn't compete well in this area. When the flowers don't stay around, crocus are just not worth the planting efforts.

I'm sorry that I'm not a connoisseur, but I grow only the most common commercial varieties, the old deep purple 'Remembrance' and the striped 'Pickwick'.  I'm not fond of the common yellow crocus 'Yellow Mammoth', because this crocus is a little too orange or brassy for my tastes, like that of the daylily 'Stella de Oro', nor do I grow the white forms of Spring crocus.  As the result of choosing only the darker colors, my crocus don't compete well for attention against the gray remnants of last year's mulch unless you're looking for them, and that drawback is all entirely my fault.  I do look for them though, every year, to confirm that Spring continues to advance towards me and to ease me gently into the massive displays of daffodil and forsythia that come shortly afterwards.  Short-stemmed, short-lived flower or not, what would Spring be without a few gaudy crocuses in the garden?

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