the daintiest new crocus varieties
When I was eight my father spent a spring in bed, ill with a duodenal ulcer. To cheer him up as he recuperated, I picked him a bunch of flowers on Saturday mornings. My favourites — and his — were the small bunches, a mixture of delicate flowers that get a bit lost in the garden, but when brought inside and looked at closely, again and again, make life worth living.
Those vases of crocuses, scillas, polyanthus, mini hyacinths, chionodoxas, grape hyacinths, pulmonarias and anemones – all early flowerers – are, to me, perfection. I now pick them every spring to put by my own bed. There is scent from the hyacinth, added to a little by the polyanthus; there are wonderful velvety textures and a lovely range of colours.
It’s easy to choose the best form of most of these plants. For a pulmonaria, P. longifolia has the deepest blue flowers, with purple buds typical of this family; its leaves are solid green rather than dappled white – I prefer them monochrome like this. For the scillas, chionodoxas and grape hyacinths, choose as deep a blue as you can: Scilla siberica is good, mixed with the standard Chionodoxa luciliae and Muscari armeniacum or the very dark Muscari latifolium.
For polyanthus, choose a simple primrose type, or better still the gold-laced varieties with their yellow petal edges. For hyacinths, bulbs that have been in the garden for years, or the multiflora, or Roman varieties are best. Their flower spikes are delicate, with the bells well spaced. These are nicer in a vase than the huge feather-duster forms that you tend to get with freshly planted garden hybrids. These make for a top-heavy arrangement that drowns miniatures.
Choosing which crocuses to grow
The choice of what to pick (or to grow in your garden for early spring flowers next year) is straightforward for some plants, but with crocuses you need to be selective. There are more and more large, chunky varieties available – great eggcup flowers, where our addiction to the showy has gone overboard and breeding has taken the plant too far from the wild.
The ugly ones tend to be in the Crocus vernus group – hybrids such as the striped purple-and-white 'Pickwick’, which you’ll see by the thousand in bedding schemes of parks and roundabouts in March and April. These give crocuses a bad name, but should not put you off.
Some crocuses are exceptionally beautiful, fine-petalled, pointy-tipped, delicate things, as far from the eggcup as it is possible to be, and for these look to the Crocus chrysanthus group.
I’ve just been to Holland to select a few easy-to-grow varieties that are as reliable as the vernus hybrids and can, like them, be planted in grass or in a pot, coming back reliably year after year with minimal attention.
There are several beautiful varieties (such as the exquisite 'Lady Killer’), which look good but are too weak to grow anywhere but in a pot. The ones I selected are guaranteed to be long-lived in the garden, but are in a different class to the vernus brigade – like a fine-boned thoroughbred standing next to a clomping cart horse. It’s from these that you should choose.
The mauves, purples and whites
Crocus 'Spring Beauty'
My favourite crocus, this has buds like a Rembrandt tulip. The outer petals are white at the base, feathered and veined with the deepest purple, the inner a lovely soft mauve revealed when the flowers open.
The non-chrysanthus parent is the famously beautiful Crocus minimus, but Crocus 'Spring Beauty’ is much more reliable, growing well in grass and coming back better and better each year.
The breeders, Paula and Thijs Langeveld, have gradually built up stock of this on their bulb farm in the north of Holland. In 2001, they bought a few specimens from a breeder and — as the sole suppliers – have propagated it from there. Now 'Spring Beauty’ fills one whole hectare in a fabulous embroidered carpet (pictured top right).
A lovely pure white with a yellow centre, looking like a poached quail’s egg, this has delicate purple feathering on its three outer petals, with the lightest wash of gold between the stripes and pointed, elegant petal tips. It grows well in grass and is very reliable.
Crocus 'Blue Pearl’
Crocus 'Blue Pearl’ looks delicate but is a strong grower and does very well in a lawn. It’s a beautiful pale colour, the outer petal surface feathered and dusted with mauve, the inner a slightly paler shade, with a gold-washed purple base to each one and a brilliantly contrasting orange stigma. Its stems are stained dark.
Crocus 'Prins Claus’
One of the better-known and widely available Crocus chrysanthus hybrids, this is an excellent garden form, a strong and reliable grower in grass and lovely in a pot. Its small flowers are mainly bright white, but like 'Ladykiller’ have strong purple staining on the outer three petals’ outer surfaces and a zap of orange stigma. Its shape is rounder than most of the chrysanthus varieties, but not so round as to be dumpy.
The creams, yellows, golds and oranges
This unusual bicolour form has a soft yellow-apricot inside and a dusted purple outer petal, the three outer petals being much more strongly pigmented than the inner three. This old variety, from 1953, has stood the test of time. Crocus 'Advance' is slightly larger than others and looks magnificent crammed into a shallow pot, or in short grass.
A pale and delicious Jersey cream, with soft flushes of apricot and the lightest feathering of purple on the outer petal, Crocus 'Cream Beauty' is a small, delicate and beautiful crocus. It is short but strong, with the brilliant orange anthers a lovely contrast to the petal colour; it has a gentle, sweet scent.
This small crocus makes you long to paint. It has apricot petals strongly striped with purple-crimson – like the perfect fabric for a jester’s pantaloons – with a stigma of an intense and delicious orange. Despite its delicate looks, it’s quite a strong grower and does very well in grass.
This is the tiniest of the crocuses I selected. When closed, a rich brownish purple colour brushes its three outer petals’ and runs on down the stem. It opens to the brilliant gold-orange of the three inner petals. The contrast between these two blocks of colour is best appreciated in splendid isolation in a pot, but this variety is also reliable in grass and an early flowerer, its tiny trumpets showing up clearly when the lawn is still very short.