2 October 2012

The last flowers of summer?

One of the characteristic plants of the aftermath growth at Martin's Meadows is the Meadow saffron or Autumn crocus.

The common names for this plant provide some useful clues about where you might expect to find it, the flowering season and its resemblance to the crocus that is the source of the spice - saffron.  However, the common names are also rather confusing as the plants at Martin's Meadows  are neither a true crocus or the source of saffron.
The plants are in fact Colchicum autumnale - whilst saffron is a true crocus species: Crocus sativus.
As all parts of Colchicum are toxic, the consequences of confusing the two, may prove very undesirable and rather greater than just struggling to correctly name it!

Although the Colchicum is not suitable for eating, it is believed to have medicinal properties and is often mentioned in herbals as a former cure for gout. The plant is believed to be native in the west of the British Isles but it was almost certainly introduced to sites in Suffolk for its medicinal properties, albeit many centuries ago (Sanford 2010).

The plant produces leaves in the spring, but interestingly these die back by early summer and the flowers appear separately in the autumn. As all parts of the plants are toxic, we have to be careful to ensure that the leaves have completely died back before cutting the hay, so that no leaves are harvested. During aftermath grazing the sheep very carefully eat around the flowers - obviously able to discern what is good for them and what is not.

The flowering period very much depends on the growing season, with flowers appearing as early as mid August and as late as the end of September.  Flowering this year has been late, probably delayed by the cold wet conditions during the summer.  For such apparently delicate structures, the flowers seem to be very robust - able to withstand heavy rain and lasting for a few weeks if conditions are cool.

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