Crocuses are cheery harbingers of spring. The tiny perennials are among the first to burst forth from the ground each year, sometimes even popping their heads out in the snow, thanks to a protective waxy cuticle covering their leaves and petals. And their often-bright colors — purples, yellows, oranges and blues — are a welcome sight after winter's muted tones.
Spring-flowering crocuses, the most prevalent, come in two varieties: the snow or wild crocus, which blooms first, and the more common Dutch crocus, which blooms later and features larger flowers. Select crocus species bloom in the autumn and winter, too.
The versatile crocus grows in most climates, except the very hottest. And they aren't too picky about soil type. Not surprisingly, then, the 80 different crocus species in existence are found around the globe, and in diverse settings such as meadows, forests and mountain peaks. The flower is especially prominent in Africa, central Asia, China, southern Europe and the Middle East.
Crocuses spread easily, a plus for those with black thumbs. And ecologically minded folks will appreciate the fact that crocuses are a great source of food for hungry bees, who love their rich, golden pollen.
Ready to add some crocuses to your yard? Here are some tips for cultivating these popular, pretty blossoms.
How to Plant Crocuses
Fall is the main planting season for crocuses. Plant them several weeks before the first hard freeze comes, which is generally September to October in northern zones and October to November in southern zones. While the exact soil composition doesn't matter too much, you do need to plant crocuses in soil that drains well. Think gritty to sandy soils or rock gardens.
"Crocuses will rot in compact or soggy soil," says Jen Stark, a master gardener and founder of Happy DIY Home, a gardening and home improvement blog.
Crocuses also need to receive partial to full sun, so a few choice planting spots are in perennial beds, rock gardens or under deciduous trees. (The flowers will bloom and die back before shrubs and trees leaf out.) Some people enjoy planting crocuses right in their lawns. If you want to try this, make sure to plant them in clumps and drifts, which is how they grow in the wild. Never plant crocuses on the north side of a building, or in dense shade.
Plant each crocus corm (the name of their bulb-like plant stem) 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 centimeters) deep and about 3 inches apart, with the pointed side up. Arrange in small groups -- say, nine or 10 per square foot -- or in larger drifts. Cover with soil and water well.
If you fear pests like mice, voles, squirrels or chipmunks will begin eating the corms right away, sprinkle some crushed seashells, oyster shells or eggshells into the planting holes. Other options to deter pests include placing screening material on top of the planted area or spraying it with a scent deterrent.
Caring for Your Crocuses
During the growing season, make sure your crocuses receive the equivalent of a half-inch to 1 inch (1-3 centimeters) of water per week, whether by rainfall or watering. But don't water them during the summer or when they're dormant, or they may rot. That's about it. They don't need any pruning or other special care.
Crocuses will start blooming any time between late winter and early spring, often with no warning — one day, no growth, the next day blooms! Each bulb produces several blooms. However, don't mow your lawn until after the flowers have stopped blooming and the leaves have begun to yellow and wither. That's a sign that the plant has stored all of its energy for the next spring growing season.
When preparing for the next growing season, Stark recommends fertilizing for optimal growth and blooming. Fertilize in early autumn if you have a short spring, or late winter if you have a long spring. If you live in an area where it snows in the winter, cover your crocus beds with a few inches of mulch. "Remove the mulch in late February," she says, "but have coverings on hand in February and March to protect the plants if the weather tuns severe again."
After a few years, your crocuses may spread so much that they become overcrowded. If this happens, dig them up after they've flowered for the season and divide into smaller clusters. You can replant these elsewhere or spread their beauty by sharing with others.
Growing Crocuses Indoors
It's possible to enjoy crocuses throughout the winter months by forcing them to bloom indoors. To do this, first pot them about 1 inch (3 centimeters) deep around mid-October and water thoroughly. Then chill in a dark location for two to three months. Ideally, the temperature should be 38 to 45 degrees F (3.3 to 7.2 C). You only need to water a moderate amount during this period. When their chilling time is up, bring them to room temperature and the crocuses should bloom in about a month. Forced plants can't be transplanted outside.
Originally Published: Apr 13, 2007