wild Colchicum autumnale

John Grimshaw j.grimshaw@virgin.net
Mon, 28 Aug 2006 02:13:31 PDT
One of the botanical specialities of Gloucestershire is the British native 
Meadow Saffron, Colchicum autumnale. It is not confined to this county, but 
is perhaps most abundant here. I know of and have heard of several sites, 
but somehow had never seen it in flower until last week when I passed a 
roadside population lower down this valley and noticed it was in bloom. As 
it is on a bend this is not a very convenient place to stop, so I decided to 
look for flowers elsewhere.

In the past Colchicum autumnale was an abundant meadow plant, but most old 
meadows have been destroyed by ploughing. Indeed, I have heard of a meadow 
near here where the topsoil was deliberately scraped off to remove the 
colchicums,  lest they poison stock - although all the evidence suggests 
that domestic animals avoid the growing plant and the dried leaves are 
harmless. In consequence the Colchicum survives mostly in woodland, but only 
ancient woodland, i.e. where woodland has persisted for several centuries. 
Most of the woods round here were originally planted by H.J. Elwes in the 
1890s, and can be told by the preponderance of beech or other 'exotic' 
species, and the depauperate understorey. They were planted on bare fields 
in an attempt to generate at least a long-term income from the rather lean 
soils of this area. A few patches of ancient woodland survive on the estate, 
however, although they have also often been augmented by other trees, and 
have always been managed as a timber and fuelwood resource - ancient 
woodland does not imply 'old growth'. It is the continuity that matters. As 
such they are an important refuge for many interesting plants, such as 
Helleborus occidentalis and Paris quadrifolia, and are carpeted by bluebells 
(Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in spring. The trees are mostly ash (Fraxinus 
excelsior) with a few oaks, and hazel (Corylus avellana) in the understorey.

The tract of woodland to which I went yesterday has had a major session of 
timber extraction and understorey clearance in the past few years, leaving 
surving trees to thicken up and the understorey to redevelop in the 
traditional English management tradition. This opening of the canopy has had 
an immediate effect on the vegetation. Most attractively, it has enabled the 
tuft-foeming grass Deschampsia caespitosa, much beloved of modern garden 
landscapers, to flourish, and this was decorating considerable areas with 
its golden plumes. Much less pleasantly, the brambles (Rubus 'fruticosus' ) 
have 'taken off' covering the ground in a vicious tangle. As I was wearing 
shorts and trainers my legs and ankles were lacerated. But it is amongst the 
brambles that the colchicums were flowering, just getting going with their 
first flowers. They are a warm pink, with a trace of tesselation and really 
very lovely in their setting. I saw no sign of variation, but will return 
later in the week, suitably clad, to see if any is visible among a larger 
number of flowering plants.

Larger, brighter species and cultivars of Colchicum have a more deserving 
place in gardens, but I doubt any of the season will give the same pleasure 
as these wildlings in their wood.

John Grimshaw

Dr John M. Grimshaw
Garden Manager, Colesbourne Gardens

Sycamore Cottage
Nr Cheltenham
Gloucestershire GL53 9NP

Website: http://www.colesbournegardens.org.uk/ 

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