Autumn crocus is one of two types of fall-blooming bulbs available in garden centers now. (Getty Images)

Autumn crocus is one of two types of fall-blooming bulbs available in garden centers now. (Getty Images)

When is a crocus not a crocus? When it’s actually a colchicum

Pair these pink to purple flowers with the silver leaves of lambs ear, purple asters and pink chrysanthemums.

On the shelves of garden centers in the month of October you will find enticing selections of tulips, daffodils, alliums, crocus, snowdrop and assorted other lesser-known bulbs — all of which, if planted this month, will start blooming in late winter and on into spring.

Collectively, we refer to these as spring-blooming bulbs. There are, however, a couple of exceptions. Mixed in with these spring bloomers are two bulbs that will actually bloom in the fall, one of which is blooming in yards all around the Puget Sound region as I write.

If you have happened to notice in your neighborhood clusters of pink goblet-shaped flowers about 5 to 6 inches tall, usually planted in groups under deciduous trees or in rockeries (and sometimes even in casually cared for lawns), you are probably observing Colchicum autumnale.

This is a bulb in the lily family that sends up flower stalks in October and usually blooms for two to three weeks, depending on the weather. After the flowers fade, 8-to 14-inch upright leaves will then sprout in groups of six to eight and remain green until they go dormant in early summer. In the following October, the whole process starts all over again.

Colchicums are an interesting bulb in that they are considered poisonous if eaten but have been used for hundreds of years as a treatment for gout.

An extract from them called colchicine is also used in the horticultural field to develop polyploid varieties that have multiple sets of chromosomes, the results of which often leads to desirable traits such as larger, more colorful flowers or double-blooming ones or simply overall stronger performers.

As to where to plant colchicums, they are quite happy interspersed among low groundcovers such as vinca, creeping Jenny, ajuga, creeping thyme or sedums — all of which will help hold up their somewhat floppy flowers. The pink-purple flowers contrast nicely with the silver leaves of lambs ear and combine well with purple asters, pink chrysanthemums and plants with purple foliage.

They seem to tolerate sun or partial shade exposures. They need reasonable drainage or they will rot. Other than that, they are a plant-it-and-forget-it type of addition to any garden.

Along with colchicums, you can also find a true crocus called Crocus sativus or saffron crocus that looks a lot more like the traditional spring bloomers we all look forward to after a dreary winter — only it blooms in the fall.

Saffron crocus has been cultivated commercially for more than 3,500 years for its prized stigmas that produce a spice for flavoring foods and also a dye for coloring fabrics. The plant has purple to lavender flowers that appear in fall for a one- to two-week period when the saffron spice can be collected from the bright red stigmas.

If you are thinking that you would like to start growing your own saffron, just remember that it takes 150 to 200 flowers to make 1 gram of saffron. So either plant a ton or just enjoy their beautiful flowers.

Saffron crocus should be planted 4 inches apart and 4 inches deep in well-drained soil with moderate levels of organic matter in full sun. The corms will multiply each year and can be divided to produce more plants. Plant them in borders, walkways, rock gardens or in mass plantings.

You can find both of these fall bloomers on shelves at garden centers during this month, but they are always in short supply so it is best to get them early. Get some started this fall and you can enjoy them for many years to come. Stay safe and keep on gardening!

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at

Two free classes

Sunnyside Nursery’s free gardening classes are online for now. An “Essential Evergreens” class is scheduled for 10 a.m. Oct. 23, followed by a “Tucking in the Garden for Winter” class at 11 a.m. Oct. 24 via Zoom. With registration, you’ll receive a Zoom link to attend the online class. For more information or to sign up, visit

Talk to us

More in Life

After 43 years, Robb Hunt is retiring as Village Theatre's executive producer. (Village Theatre)
The Village Theatre’s Robb Hunt to retire after 43 years

He brought the Issaquah-based theater’s award-winning productions to Everett in 1994.

"Washington Farm," ca. 1934 Oil on canvas, 27 1/2 × 33 1/2 in. Collection of Lindsey and Carolyn Echelbarger, promised gift to Cascadia Art Museum
Edmonds museum spotlights Japanese-American artist’s journey

Kenjiro Nomura’s art ranges from pre-war impressions to post-war abstractions — and images from inside WWII internment camps.

Anya Taylor-Joy, left, and Thomasin McKenzie in "Last Night in Soho." MUST CREDIT: Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features
‘Last Night in Soho’ a stylish, blood-soaked ode to ‘60s London

Director Edgar Wright peppers the cast with icons of the era, including Terence Stamp and the late Diana Rigg in her last film role.

Gene Simmons impersonator, Jack Murrin practices on there bass guitar at his storage building on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 in Everett, Washington. Murrin, 51, a firefighter and impersonator, is putting on a 2-hour KISS concert with 19 songs in front of his north Everett home on Halloween.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
The Demon: Gene Simmons imitator hosts a free Kiss concert

Everett firefighter and paramedic Jack Murrin will return to the stage for a Halloween show at his home.

Simple recipes for gluten-free baked goods — even bread — yes, really

“Cannelle et Vanille” blogger Aran Goyoaga has written a cookbook of straightfoward bakes without gluten.

A.J. Croce, son of the late Jim Croce, is scheduled to perform Nov. 20 at the Edmonds Center for the Arts.
All about music: Schedule of concerts around Snohomish County

The listings include Sir Mix-a-Lot, ZZ Top and Bands, Brews and Bowling at Evergreen Lanes in Everett.

The Jimmy Wright Band is scheduled to play a Halloween Party on Oct. 30 at Pub 282 on Camano Island. (YouTube)
Where to hear live music in Snohomish County nightclubs

The listings include Engel’s Pub, Mirkwood Public House and Port Gardner Bay Winery shows.

Peter Rivera, the original lead singer and drummer for Rare Earth, will perform Nov. 6 with his band at the Historic Everett Theatre. (Peter Rivera)
Tickets for sale in Snohomish County and around the region

The listings include Historic Everett Theatre, Edmonds Center for the Arts and Thumbnail Theater shows.

See Dawn Cornell as Judge Laura Wargrave and Bill Kusler as Gen. John Mackenzie in Red Curtain's production of "And Then There Were None," showing at the Marysville theater through Nov. 3. (Larry T. Lisk)
Theater, dance and comedy shows around Snohomish County

The listings include Historic Everett Theatre, Edmonds Center for the Arts and Thumbnail Theater shows.

Most Read