This winter has been so mild that I feel that I am already perched on the edge of the next season. The brook has never been completely frozen and all through the winter I have had the pleasure of listening to flowing waters whenever I am snow shoeing or walking around my property. The birds and other animals can easily bathe (yes birds do bathe even in the winter if the temperatures are mild). Around the foundation of the house and next to my rock garden the sun melts the snow quickly and bare ground keeps appearing after every storm. Every time I am outdoors my eyes seem to seek out these spots to see if I can glimpse a blade of green. These are the first places that I usually look for crocuses in April, but this year I am already longing to see them!
Although I have clumps of crocus scattered around the house in areas where snow lingers I am still amazed how, by mid-April, all the crocuses, including those that push up through the snow, are putting on a colorful show. I have saffron-colored crocuses that are barely an inch high that make a stunning buttery bouquet (not to be confused with the saffron crocus, which cannot survive in Maine). Other colors around here include lavender, striped purple, violet, and white goblet shaped blossoms. In addition I have tall deep purple crocus with brightly colored stamens that bring out the tiny mud bees who live in the ground and swarm around all of the crocus blossoms (some are sweetly scented), but that seem to prefer the deep purple crocus if given a choice. All are gathering pollen as they move from flower to flower. I have a special affection for these tiny bees that often land on my arms or get tangled in my hair; they could sting but they choose not to.
There is also something about the sight of crocuses blooming on barren or snow-covered ground that seems almost miraculous—these diminutive flowers herald the approach of spring and color after months of bleak monochromatic gray and white, with a few evergreens for contrast (once the forests had an abundance of conifers, but now the mountains around here are almost stripped bare). This year I am feeling impatient because of the mild weather, but I suspect that the crocuses will shoot their grass-like variegated spikes above ground at the usual time.
Crocuses are a genus of flowering plants grown from corms. Today they are native to the islands in the Aegean, Central Asia, China, central and southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. They can grow from sea level to alpine tundra in woodland, scrub, or tundra. Many of the 90 species are cultivated for their flowers, including the saffron crocus or Crocus sativus. The saffron spice is obtained from the three deep orange stigmas inside the exquisite violet-blue flower. From Crete, the saffron crocus apparently spread to India by way of ancient trade routes. The first crocuses seen in the Netherlands (where crocus species are not native) were from corms brought back from Constantinople in the 1500s. From snow crocuses to giant Dutch crocuses, all just 2 to 4 inches tall, the colors can range from pink, mauve, and red to orange, yellow, purple, and blue.
True crocuses can bloom in the spring, the fall, or even during the winter. The label “autumn crocus” can be confusing because there is a lily that looks similar to a crocus that also blooms in the fall, and is called by the same name. However, it is easy to tell the difference between the two because true crocuses have three stamens and the small lilies have six. These small corms also naturalize. Thus, they are perennials and they can also spread into large clumps. Alas, squirrels dig and eat the corms, as do voles. On the bright side, deer and rabbits rarely bother these delicate flowers.
Crocus sativus is grown to harvest the precious saffron spice, and it was first documented in the Mediterranean, most notably on the islands of Crete and Santorini. Paintings showing the saffron crocus being gathered by young girls appear on Minoan frescoes on both of those islands. The Crocus sativus flowers that decorate wall frescoes and clay vessels date back to 2000 BCE. There are detailed scenes of young girls picking these flowers on rocky hillsides in natural surroundings; other scenes show a regular pattern of crocus plant clusters indicating that cultivation of this species was part of the agricultural practiced by the Greek Minoan culture.
Young girls harvested the saffron crocus flowers in the autumn. These flowers were considered to be sacred and the girls offered the crocuses to the goddess of vegetation. The frescoes clearly depict the crocus as an essential flower, and it was a symbol that was used in ceremonies celebrating a girl’s transition from childhood to womanhood.
There is additional pre-Christian mythology associated with the crocus. In one Greek myth, Krokos, a youthful lover of Hermes, was accidentally killed by a god who was so distraught that he turned his lover into a flower. It is said that wherever the youth’s blood fell, a saffron crocus flower grew; the three flaming orange/red stigmas represented the blood of Krokos.
Most folks familiar with the Greek myth of Persephone, Demeter, and the Eleusinian Mysteries (practiced for 2000 years from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE) know that in the fall Persephone was gathering saffron crocuses (or some other flower, like a poppy or narcissus) when Hades abducted her into the underworld. When she was returned to the upper world in the spring, yellow crocuses were said to have burst through the ground at her feet. (Because this abduction occurs in the fall, it is probable that the flower Persephone picked really was Crocus sativus rather than a narcissus or poppy because these latter two bloom in the spring or the summer, respectively). In the spring, even Demeter, Persephone’s mother, heard the crocuses cry out, “The Maiden is coming!” The pure yellow crocuses were probably the wild Golden Crocus (C. chrysanthus) that is native to Greece. It blooms while the snow is still on the ground, celebrating Persephone’s return to the upper world and the coming of spring.
The Saffron Crocus goddess had an important role in Crete; she was often identified as Aurora, the Goddess of the Dawn. This goddess was seen as the animating spirit of all life. Aurora harmonized the elements of fire and water. She was both first light and the early morning dew dwelling at sunrise. Collecting the precious spice saffron from the stigmas of violet-blue crocus invoked the protection of this goddess.
From a mythological perspective the crocus was considered to be a sacred flower, and it was associated with the changing seasons, so it’s no surprise that so many of us in the north look forward to the coming of the magical multi-colored crocus, her bees, and spring!