Fragrant Plants in Literature-Crocus by Eleanor Sinclair Rodhe

Crocus by Eleanor Sinclair Rodhe

Images of Crocus

In February the constellations of the crocuses shine
forth in their firmament of green. Most crocuses have a
faint warm scent, but only on really sunny days or in a
warm room. Many people do not regard them as scented
flowers, but Virgil knew their exquisite scent in Italian
sunshine. Sometimes one wonders whether our modern
eyes are dimmed to the amazing beauty of these flowers,
especially the orange-coloured ones. Homer's carpet of
the gods was of hyacinths, crocuses, and lotus flowers,
and all the classical writers used ' crocus-coloured ' to
describe a glowing orange golden colour, for which
indeed there is no other word. The golden crocus turns
the earth to sheets of living flame. To quote Homer,
i the flaming crocus made the mountain glow.'

Saffron yellow, the colour of light, was apparently the
royal and sacred colour of the most ancient days. The
Persian kings wore saffron yellow shoes in imitation of the
still older Babylonio-Median costume. In Aeschylus'
Persians Darius is summoned from the nether-world
by the chorus, ' Rise, ancient ruler, rise ; come with the
saffron-dyed sumaris on thy feet ... a royal tiara on
thy head.' When Jason prepared to plough the field in
Colchis with the fire-breathing bulls, he threw off his
saffron-coloured garments. Bacchus wore Krokotos, the
saffron dress. The new-born Herakles Pindar describes
as swathed in crocus-yellow. The crocus dress of Pallas
Athene the Attic maidens embroidered with many
colours. Antigone let fall her crocus-coloured stole in
her despair at the death of her mother and brothers.
Helena took with her from Mycenae her gold-embroidered
palla, a crocus-bordered veil. In the Epics, Eos, the dawn,
is ever saffron- veiled. The companions of Europa, when
Jupiter approached her in the form of a bull, were
gathering the fragrant hair of the golden crocus. When
Pan and the nymphs passed singing through the meadows,
the fragrant crocus and hyacinth bloomed in the tangled
growth of grass. 1 It was ever the crocus of the East, Crocus
vernus, which was so highly esteemed, not the humbler
native kind. When Roman luxury was at its height,
crocus scent and crocus flowers were used as lavishly as
rose leaves. Heliogabalus bathed in saffron-water, and
his guests reclined on cushions stuffed with crocus petals.

Crocuses are natives of the south and central Europe,
the Levant and western Asia. We do not know when they
were introduced, but it is quite likely that the Romans
brought bulbs of such favourite flowers to adorn the
gardens of their villas in England during the first
centuries of our era. In the Middle Ages, when they
were again introduced, the autumn- flowering C. sativus
was certainly known and grown in this country long before
the spring-flowering varieties. Croh was the Middle
English word for saffron. According to tradition the
saffron bulb was introduced into England in the reign of
Edward III by a pilgrim, who brought it concealed in
the hollow of his staff. Even in the sixteenth century
herbalists described the spring-flowering crocus as saffron
of the spring — * Saffron of the Spring with yellow
flowers.'

Three hundred years ago Gerard wrote of the crocus,
' It hath floures of a most perfect shining yellow colour,
seeming afar off to be a hot glowing coal of fire. That
pleasant plant was sent unto me from Robinius of Paris,
that painful and most curious searcher of simples.' Is
there any other flower which so wonderfully gives us at
least a faint idea of the meaning of the words, ' And the
streets of the city were pure gold like as it were trans-
parent glass ' ? Crocuses are indeed amongst the loveliest
and most gladsome of spring flowers. Each crocus cup is
not only of exceeding beauty, but within its petals it
seems to hold the quintessence of sunlight in luminous
gold, and their scent is the scent of sunlight. Many years
ago that great flower-lover, Mr. Forbes Watson, wrote of
them, * Whilst the Snowdrop enters with so quiet a
footstep that it might almost pass unobserved amidst
the remnants of the melting snow, the Crocus bursts
upon us in a blaze of colour like the sun-rise of the
flowers. . . . Though at first sight apparently alike in
colour, close attention will show that the inner segments
are of deeper hue and more distinctly orange than the
outer. But we must carefully observe the colour itself.
Like most things that are very beautiful it varies greatly
in different aspects ; the petals to a careless eye, and
especially in a dull light, may seem but a surface of glossy
orange. Yet look carefully and they are lighted with rosy
reflections, pencilled with delicate streaks and nerves of
shade and, above all, bestrewed with little gleaming points,
a host of microscopic stars, which cast a fiery sheen like
that of the forked feathers of the Bar-tailed Humming-
bird, as if the surface were engrained with dust of amber
or gold.'

Crocuses never look happy if they are continually being
attended to. Thick close clumps of them, fifteen and
twenty together, growing naturally with masses of their
lovely golden chalices full of sunlight, look gloriously
happy, but planted out singly there is always something
depressing about them. They look forlorn and tidy.


Crocuses are companionable flowers, and they seem to
enjoy huddling together. Grown separately, the flowers
are, or should be, larger (I have never observed this to be
actually the case, but there is such a thing as taking all the
rules and theories one finds in gardening manuals too
seriously !) Picking crocuses planted out singly makes one
feel guilty of a crime, but picking them from fat neglected
clumps is a joy.
The Scented Garden-Elizabeth Sinclair Rodhe

Images of Crocus

I am writing for the first time this year out of
doors, on one of those glorious sunny days which always
come in February and for which one is so much more
grateful than for a whole week of summer sun. And
I have just been counting the number of flowers on
the largest clump of golden crocuses (C. vermis) by the
apple trees in our garden. There are at least seventy-eight
flowers fully out, though how they have managed to crowd
themselves into a space measuring only about 9 inches by
12 is little short of a miracle. The flowers are as large as
any grown singly and very long-stalked (some of them
certainly 5 or 6 inches long), and, pushing aside the fully
expanded flowers, one could see there were masses more
coming on. When I came there were eight or nine bees
working at the flowers, and watching the bees for some
time it was delightful to see how often the same bees,
after a hurried visit to smaller clumps near by, returned to
feast on the riches spread before them on the largest
clumps. The words of an Elizabethan madrigal come into
my mind :
I like the bee with Toil and Pain
Fly humbly o'er the flow'ry Plain
And with the Busy Throng
The little sweets my Labours gain
I work into a song.'


The scent of the crocuses would be almost imperceptible
from the single flowers, but from the masses it is warm and
exquisite, and in the sunlight the clumps look like masses
of translucent gold caught not out of the sunlight but
out of the sun itself. It is curious how colour seems to
alter the character of a crocus flower. Yellow and golden
crocuses look almost riotously happy, but all the mauve
varieties have a placid dreamy appearance. Of the very
early-flowering varieties C. imperati is always described
as scented, but it does not seem to be more scented than
some of the other varieties, especially the commonest
of the yellow and gold-coloured kinds. From the point of
view of decorative effect nothing touches the Dutch
yellow crocus (C. vernus). No one knows its origin. It is
probably of garden origin, for it is sterile, and it has never
been found growing wild. It increases by throwing off
little corms. If planted in grass the grass should never be
mown till the crocus leaves have quite withered, otherwise
the corms will suffer badly. Though the bees love crocuses
grown in clumps the birds do not seem to attack them as
much as crocuses planted singly, or if they do, their
depredations are not so apparent. What the birds love
in them is the tiny drop of nectar to be found in each
flower. What with one thing and another crocuses have
many enemies. Field mice, the mischievous grey squirrel
and rats all enjoy eating the corms, and if planted near
the surface nothing will stop pheasants pecking them out.