Crocus flavus: no polemics here, just humor

Jim McKenney
Wed, 31 Jan 2007 16:24:03 PST
Perhaps the rest of you are finding this tilting between Roger and me
tiresome. Let me see if I can enliven things a bit and steer the thread into
a totally different direction.  

Evidently Roger and I are both big on crocus. These disagreements seem to
come with the territory. Earlier this evening I was wondering what Linnaeus
might think of our modern genus Crocus. I began fantasizing about what it
might be like if Linnaeus were to come back to life during the spring crocus
season and take a walk around the garden with someone who knew crocuses, but
not their history. 

For the sake of my story, let that someone be someone who has been following
our postings about Crocus flavus and Crocus 'Dutch Yellow'.

Again, for the sake of my story, Linnaeus will arrive when a big spread of
Crocus 'Dutch Yellow' is in bloom. He will also arrive with his faculties
fully intact in their 1753 version. Since it isn't every day that Linnaeus
visits the garden, our gardener will be careful to let him do most of the
talking. But that doesn't mean that our gardener can't lead the witness a
bit - as in, lead Linnaeus right over to that grand patch of flowering
Crocus 'Dutch Yellow'.

Our gardener waits there while the great man admires the crocuses. What our
gardener is waiting for is for Linnaeus to officially pronounce the identity
of those crocuses. Will he call them Crocus flavus or will he recognize them
as 'Dutch Yellow'? Our gardener knows that 'Dutch Yellow' existed in the
eighteenth century, maybe even in the seventeenth. The name might have been
different, but it was there. Our impatient gardener finally asks the great
man "Which species of crocus is this?" And Linnaeus replies, in surprisingly
good English, that they are Crocus sativus. 

At this, our gardener is perplexed. He's trying to be very polite here:
after all, Linnaeus has been asleep for about two and a half centuries. Give
him a chance to wake up. Maybe it's the jet lag - or just the sheer
astonishment of having been on a jet. 

Linnaeus, for his part, notices the look of surprise on the face of the
gardener. A kindly man, he volunteers "Oh, you want me to be very precise,
don't you? You have been reading my book, Species Plantarum, haven't you? In
that case, you know that those are Crocus sativus var β vernus". 

Our gardener is now flummoxed: surely those two and a half centuries have
addled the mind of the father of nomenclature. Is he color blind? Can't he
see that those are yellow crocuses, not purple crocuses? And doesn't he know
that Crocus sativus blooms in the fall, and not in the spring? And color
blind or not, Crocus sativus and Crocus vernus don't look at all alike

Darn, thinks the gardener, how do they expect me to get it right when the
so-called experts can't get it right? At that, our gardener, thoroughly
disgusted,  pulls out his Rubus fruticosus and arranges for someone to pick
up old Linnaeus and take him back wherever he came from. 


So what is this all about? To begin with, all of the pronouncements of our
Linnaeus redivivus are correct - or at least they were correct in 1753. 

When Linnaeus established the genus Crocus, it had but one species which he
named sativus. The word sativus means "cultivated". His choice of the name
sativus might have been a reflection of his belief that all of the crocuses
he knew (evidently learned under the mentorship of Phillip Miller of the
Chelsea Physic Garden) were garden crocuses. His Crocus sativus var β vernus
included all spring blooming species of Crocus regardless of color or other

One species - that was it. Things have changed a bit, haven't they? 

Incidentally, that one species included a plant now placed in the genus
Romulea. In a very broad sense, Romulea is to Crocus as polyanthus primrose
is to acaulis primrose. There are four Romulea in the garden here, but
that's another story. 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, where two of those four
Romulea are poking up. 
My Virtual Maryland Garden
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin 
Webmaster Potomac Lily Society

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