March 29, 2013

Easter Eye Candy

Despite the fact that I have complained a bit (!) about our cold winter the past few months, I have to admit that it has been a great year for crocuses in my garden. A few hardy ones started blooming in mid-February and some are still going and are in fact in their prime. Some have been blooming each spring for most all of the 26 years we have lived in this house (except when the rabbits have eaten them to the ground) while others are much newer. I have no idea what variety all of them are but each one gladdens my heart when I see them. Here is a sample:

They give so much beauty and require so little care. Usually I even forget about where some of them are planted and it is a fun surprise when I walk out and see them in bloom. I think that the cool weather this year has really extended the season and kept each variety blooming for over a week. Usually we have some much warmer days that accelerate the plants' blooming cycle. It also helps that we have them in scattered clumps around our lot so that some get more light and warmth than others, leading to varying bloom times.

It is interesting to watch how they open and close in response to sunlight. On cloudy days they hardly open at all, and in full sun they are wide open, only to close again in late afternoon. I wonder if this is an adaptation designed to attract appropriate pollinators and/or to prevent damage from winter and spring storms. 

Crocuses of various types (there are at least 90 species) are native to parts of Asia, Europe and Africa--basically everywhere but the new world and Antarctica. They have been cultivated for centuries, and have been manipulated quite a bit by the horticultural trade which has introduced many new varieties (although some original species are available too). Most of the crocuses that we see in gardens are varieties of Crocus vernis. Here are a few more that grow in my garden:

How do they manage to bloom in winter? Apparently the flowers and leaves have a waxy covering or cuticle that keeps them from freezing and drying. Some crocus species actually bloom in the fall, including Crocus sativus, from which comes the spice saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.

Interestingly, Crocus sativus is unknown in the wild, and is thought to be a Bronze Age cultivar or mutant of Crocus cartwrightianus from Crete. There are several reasons why saffron is so expensive. First, it is sterile so has to be propagated vegetatively rather than by seeds. Second, the saffron comes from the flowers' dried stigmas (the structure at the end of the pistil that receives the pollen) and there are only a few per flower. Also, the stigmas have to be harvested by hand, and most saffron production occurs in Iran. One pound of saffron comes from 50,000 to 75,000 flowers! It is used in a variety of cuisines, lending its yellow color and mild flavor perhaps most famously in Spanish paella.

Any blooms in the garden are quite welcome at this time of year and we certainly have enjoyed the crocuses. I also have a few snowdrops, the early daffodils look like they will bloom soon, and I brought some forsythia branches inside a few days ago hoping that they will flower by Easter dinner. Here is a picture from my small patch of winter aconite:

No comments:

Post a Comment