Colchicum 'Alboplenum' ? 'White Waterlily'

Jim McKenney
Sat, 03 Oct 2009 07:18:32 PDT
John Grimshaw wrote: “but Colchicum byzantinum is an ancient sterile hybrid,

'Innocence' is presumably a sport from it: I can't imagine that a change of 

colour has restored fertility.”


If it is true that ‘Innocence’ is a sport of Colchicum byzantinum, then that
is probably true.


However, I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that ‘Innocence’ is
hardly what one would expect to get in a white-flowered sport of Colchicum
byzantinum. The flowers of ‘Innocence’ (to my eyes at least) do not resemble
those of Colchicum byzantinum much. For one thing, they are much larger. 


Furthermore, there seems to be ambiguity about how this name Colchicum
byzantinum is used, at least in the trade. Many of us, myself included,
expect the term Colchicum byzantinum to mean the sterile clone known since
at least the middle of the seventeenth century, a plant with enormous
pleated leaves and comparatively small flowers with two salient
characteristics – the purple or crimson tips of the stigmata and the
broader, slightly incurved outer tepals. In other words, the plant John
Grimshaw means. 


On the other hand, there is that illustration in Clusius which strongly
suggests C. byzantinum except for one thing: it has seed capsules. I believe
that this image has prompted some persons to regard all of the big, pleated
leaved, early-flwoering non-tesstllated  Colchcium as Colchiicum byzantinum.


Bowles treated the sterile form as a clone and noted its close resemblance
to C. cilicicum. 


Modern taxonomists vary in their treatment of these plants. For instance,
the 15th edition of Zander, Handwörterbuch der Pflanzennamen, 1994,  the
standard German work on the nomenclature of domesticated plants, cites
Colchicum byzantinum Ker-Gawl. and Colchicum byzantinum var. cilicicum
Boiss. Thus, in this arrangement, the species byzantinum covers both the old
sterile form and the presumably fertile forms known as cilicicum. When
plants are offered simply as C. byzantinum, either sterile byzantinum or
cilicicum might be provided with equal propriety because the name C.
byzantinum in this arrangement refers not specifically to the sterile clone
but to a species with at least two variants, byzantinum and cilicicum. For
the same reason, someone selecting material from these plants might be
tempted to call such selections Colchicum byzantinum without further


I have not checked the current edition of Zander to see what arrangement is
now used. 


All of this is probably inducing terminal boredom in some of you, but it is
of interest to me for practical reasons. Among the early acquisitions of
nominal Colchicum byzantinum here is a plant which has been growing in my
garden for perhaps forty years or more. At first glance it seems to be
sterile C. byzantinum. It has the pleated, veratrum-like foliage, the
crimson tip to the stigmata, early flowers bigger than those of C. autumnale
but smaller and earlier than those of the big garden hybrids – it’s just the
thing which might be sent out as Colchcium autumnale ‘Major’, said to be s
synonym of sterile C. byzantinum. In all the years this plant has grown
here, it has never set seed. I have seen this same plant in other local
gardens. In fact, only earlier this week the Collections Manager of a local
public collection sought my help in identifying the colchicums growing under
his care – and most of the plants we saw answered to this plant. Some of
these were in plantings dating back more than thirty years (in fact, to the
approximate time I was acquiring my plants); that highlights another
characteristic of this plant – it is very reliable under local conditions.
Most colchicums are no more reliable under local conditions than tulips. 


However, whatever it is, it does not seem to be the old sterile Colchicum
byzantinum. For one thing, the flowers are a bit bigger. And they open
widely, unlike those of C. byzantinum whose outer tepals incurve a bit and
are broader.  


This plant can be seen on the PBS wiki – it’s the one in the second group of
photos, the ones taken by Mark Wilcox, a Washington D.C. gardener. I’ve
distributed my plants in the past – I hope he did not get them from me! 


The simple solution to this dilemma is to assume that my plants are C.
cilicicum, and for a while that’s what I did. But since they never set seed,
I have doubts about that, too. 


I frankly doubt that there is a direct connection between the old sterile
Colchicum byzantinum and the garden plant now being called ‘Innocence’.  



Jim McKenney

Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, 39.03871º North, 77.09829º West, USDA zone

My Virtual Maryland Garden



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