Crocus - Beautiful Flowers, Saffron Spice and Colchicine
The crocuses are blooming in southwestern British Columbia as I write this article. What a beautiful sign of spring! The flowers aren't the first sign of the season in this part of the world, but they're the most colourful. They grow in gardens and as escapees on patches of land outside of gardens. The unexpected sight of crocuses beside a trail is a lovely surprise.
In addition to providing enjoyment, some crocuses affect human lives in other ways. One species produces the exotic and expensive spice known as saffron. Another plant referred to as a crocus produces colchicine, a potentially poisonous chemical that has medicinal uses, including the treatment of gout.
Plant breeding techniques have produced a wide variety of crocuses. Most have cup-shaped flowers, but some produce star-shaped flowers instead. The flowers may be purple, blue, lavender, pink, orange, yellow or white in colour. My favourite types are the striped varieties.
How to Plant Crocuses
Crocus Flowers and Plants
The Crocus Genus
Crocuses all belong to the genus Crocus, which is part of the iris family. They are native to Europe, Asia and North Africa but grow in many other parts of the world as well.
Crocus plants have beautiful and often colourful flowers. The flowers bloom in the winter, spring or autumn, depending on the species. Some flowers appear even while there is snow on the ground. Crocuses also have long and narrow leaves which generally have a white line running down their middle.
The dormant, underground form of the crocus is a corm, which produces new leaves and flowers when environmental conditions are suitable. Crocus corms can produce leaves and flowers both outdoors in gardens and indoors in containers.
The corms of crocuses aren't toxic. It's still a good idea to keep them out of the way of children and pets, though. If pets eat the corms they may experience gastrointestinal upset.
Bulbs and Corms - What's the Difference?
The part of a crocus that's planted is often called a bulb, but technically it's a corm. Both true bulbs and corms are generally rounded and firm structures that develop underground and store food for the plant. They both have the ability to produce new leaves, stems and flowers.
Despite their similar functions, there are differences between bulbs and corms. The most noticeable one is that bulbs - such as onions - consist of a series of layers, or scales. Corms are one solid unit with no layers.
Parts of a Flower
Crocus sativus and Saffron
The spice known as saffron is produced from an autumn-flowering species with the scientific name of Crocus sativus. The common name of this plant is saffron crocus. The saffron crocus is unknown in the wild. It's thought to have been developed by selective breeding of other crocuses that do exist in the wild. It's believed to have originated in Greece, or possibly in Southwest Asia. Saffron has been harvested and used since ancient times.
Some people grow the saffron crocus in their garden and enjoy the splash of colour that it produces in the fall. The flowers are purple, blue, pink or white. They have yellow stamens and red stigmas borne on long, red styles. The flowers are sterile, however. Propagation has to be carried out by corms instead of by pollination and fruit development. The corm can be divided to make new corms.
The spice known as saffron is made from the stigmas of Crocus sativus flowers. Saffron is appreciated for its flavour, aroma and colour. It's used as a fabric dye as well as a spice and may have medicinal benefits. The stigmas are generally picked by hand, which makes producing saffron a very labour-intensive endeavour.
I've never tried saffron myself, but from what I've read, people either love it or hate it. It has a complex taste that seems to be perceived differently by different people. The flavour depends on the quality of the saffron and its freshness as well as on an individual's taste buds. In addition, the spice needs to be used in very small quantities or it can be overwhelming.
Saffron is very popular in some cuisines, including traditional Persion, Arabic, Turkish, Indian and Spanish cuisines. The spice is used to flavour bouillabaisse, curry, paella and other rice dishes, beverages, ice cream, puddings and baked goods.
Research suggests that saffron may be useful for treating Alzheimer's disease. More investigations are needed to confirm this observation, however. Saffron may be beneficial for other health problems as well, but research in these areas is very preliminary.
About 70,000 crocus flowers or 210,000 stigmas are needed to make one pound of saffron.
How to Grow Saffron Crocus
The Autumn Crocus
The autumn crocus is another plant with lovely flowers. It doesn't belong to the genus Crocus, however, even though its flowers look superficially similar to those of crocuses. The scientific name of the autumn crocus is Colchicum autumnale. True crocuses belong to the iris family, but the autumn crocus belongs to the lily family.
An autumn crocus is a different plant from an autumn-blooming member of the genus Crocus. It's important to be aware of the differences between the two plants. The correct identification is vital because the entire autumn crocus plant is toxic.
One of the alternate names for the autumn crocus is "naked ladies". This name refers to the fact that the flowers are present without any leaves, as can be seen in the two photos above. The leaves are visible in the spring and summer, but not in the fall when the flower blooms. True crocuses have long, narrow leaves that are present at the same time as the flowers. Another distinguishing feature is that an autumn crocus flower has six stamens while a true crocus flower has only three. In addition, the corms of autumn crocus have a waxy surface, while those of a true crocus have a dry, papery surface.
Despite its dangers, an autumn crocus that is treated with respect can be a lovely garden plant. The plant blooms in September. The flowers generally have a pink or blue-pink colour, but they may sometimes be white. The plant typically grows in damp meadows in the wild and is also known as the meadow saffron. It's native to Eurasia, but like true crocuses it's grown in many other parts of the world.
What is Gout or Gouty Arthritis?
Autumn Crocus, Colchicine and Gout
The autumn crocus contains poisonous alkaloids. All parts of the plant are toxic, but the toxins are most concentrated in the corm. The main poison in the plant is colchicine. At high concentrations colchicine is dangerous and even deadly. At low doses, it has medicinal benefits.
Colchicine is a prescribed medication that is used to treat gout attacks. Gout is also known as gouty arthritis because it affects joints, like other types of arthritis. The disorder is caused by excess uric acid in the blood. The acid causes inflammation in joints. The symptoms of this inflammation are redness, heat, swelling and pain. A gout attack appears suddenly, lasts for hours or days and is often very painful. It frequently affects the big toe.
Colchicine was isolated from autumn crocus in 1820. Long before this time the plant was used medicinally for health problems, including gout. Its use was risky, however. Sometimes too much was prescribed and the patient died.
Precautions When Taking Colchicine
Colchicine Benefits and Dangers
Colchicine in medicinal doses relieves the pain and inflammation of gout and usually works well. It's used to prevent gout attacks as well as to treat them. It's especially useful for patients who can't take NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin). Colchicine is used to treat some other health problems in addition to gout. Unlike some medicines, however, it doesn't relieve pain in all illnesses.
Although colchicine has the potential to help, it also has the potential to harm. It's important that a patient takes colchicine only under a doctor's guidance. It mustn't be used if a person has certain health problems or takes particular medications.
It isn't completely understood how colchicine relieves gout. It is known that it inhibits mitosis. This is the process of chromosome duplication that takes place before a cell divides to make two daughter cells. Mitosis enables each daughter cell to have one complete set of chromosomes.
Colchicine's ability to inhibit mitosis enables it to interfere with the activity and division of white blood cells that are involved in the inflammatory process. Unfortunately, colchicine inhibits other cells that undergo mitosis, too, so it's very important to take the correct dose. Colchicine is also thought to reduce histamine secretion. Histamine is one of the chemicals involved in inflammation.
Side effects of colchicine use include nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhea. If these symptoms are severe or prolonged a doctor should be consulted, because they can also be signs of a colchicine overdose. Other signs of a toxic dose of colchicine or autumn crocus include muscle pain or weakness, unusual bleeding, bruising (bleeding under the skin), slowed breathing and slowed heartbeat. In severe poisoning there may be low blood pressure and kidney and liver failure. In very severe cases, the heart may stop beating.
The Importance of Flowering Plants
Flowering plants like crocuses can add great beauty and enjoyment to our lives. The foods, spices and medicines provided by these plants are additional benefits of their presence on Earth and are very important reasons to protect their existence. Like all medications, medicines from plants are chemicals and should be treated with care. They can be wonderfully helpful when they're used correctly, however.
© 2015 Linda Crampton
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