PLANT OF THE WEEK

Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department

 

AUTUMN CROCUS

 

Common names:  

Autumn crocus, Fall crocus, Meadow saffron, Mysteria, Wonder bulb  

Scientific name:        Colchicum autumnale

Explanation of scientific name:       

Colchicum  - from Colchis, ancient name of a country on the Black Sea

 

autumnale - autumnal, in reference to the flowering time of this species

 

Most people are familiar with the Spring Flowering Crocus, with its small flowers in a variety of colors representing some of the first blossoms to appear in the spring.  The Autumn Crocus, however, is unknown to the majority of gardeners.  When encountered, it is considered by many to be an over-sized Spring Flowering Crocus that is blooming in the wrong season.  While related, the Spring and Autumn Crocuses are not nearly as close relatives as their common names suggest.  The Autumn Crocus belongs to the Lily family (Liliaceae) along with the Lilies, Tulips, and Hyacinths.  The Spring Flowering Crocus, in contrast, is a member of the Iris Family (Iridaceae) along with the Iris and Gladiolus.

 

Native to Europe, North Africa and Asia, the Autumn Crocus is just one species of about 70 in the genus Colchicum.  The plantís life cycle is unusual, and unless one is aware of how it grows it can present a surprise in fall gardens.  The large colorful flowers averaging 4 inches across appear in clusters of 1-4 blossoms.  They arise from the earth without any accompanying foliage.  For 2-3 weeks they brighten an area, then die back to the ground.  The next spring, 3-8 leaves appear, up to 1 foot in length.  They produce food that is transported to and stored in the plantís corm, a modified underground stem.  The foliage withers by early summer, and the plant remains dormant within the soil usually until September in our area, when it flowers again.  The corms are available at garden centers and especially through mail order catalogs from mid through late summer.  Since they must be planted early, long before most people consider planting bulbs in the Fall, the Autumn Crocus has long been overlooked by modern gardeners.  It deserves wider usage.

 

Besides its ornamental value, the Autumn Crocus has a long history of use in medicine, rooted in the myths and written records of ancient Egypt, India, and Greece.  It is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, the oldest known medical text, prepared by the Egyptians around 1550 B.C.  Thirty-five centuries later it is still found in modern pharmacopeias, one of only 18 plants documented as having a history of medicinal value for such a long period of time.

 

While the active ingredient, the alkaloid colchicine, was only recognized and isolated from the Autumn Crocus in 1820, its medicinal use prior to then was based on using the dried seeds, flowers, and corms of the plant.  Dried seeds, for example, contain 4 parts per thousand of colchicine.  Unfortunately, using the drug in these crude forms presented a significant risk of poisoning since the amount of the active drug in the plant varies from plant to plant, plant part to plant part, and season to season.  The Autumn Crocus has a long history as a poison.  Greek slaves were known to have eaten the plant to make themselves sick, and even to commit suicide.

 

Probably the most significant use of colchicine in medicine has been in the treatment of gout, a disease characterized by the painful inflammation of joints in response to urate crystals deposited in the joint tissue.  Ancient writings make vague references to Autumn Crocus being used to control this disease.  The first documented use of the plant to treat gout was made by Alexander of Tralles in the 6th century A.D.  Through the years, overdoses were not uncommon and fatalities occurred.  Since gout was a common ailment among the noble and wealthy, physicians must have held a rather precarious position.  If the patient died from the colchicine prescription, severe punishments were handed out.  In some instances physicians even paid with their lives.  Benjamin Franklin, himself a sufferer from gout, is said to be the first person to introduce colchicine therapy into the United States.  It is still used today to treat acute cases.

 

Another major use of colchicine is based on the chemicalís effect on cell division in animals and plants.  It interrupts the cell division process of mitosis, and as a result some treated cells become polyploids (having some multiple of their normal compliment of genetic information).  Plant breeders have found this to be particularly useful in the development of new cultivated varieties of plants.  Numerous plants available to the consumer today are the result of colchicine treatments to induce polyploidy.  Interestingly enough, the polyploid inducing and anti-inflammatory effects of colchicine may have a common denominator:  the chemicalís disruption of a cellular component called the microtubules.

 

The Autumn Crocus, rarely encountered and often unappreciated, is a good example of how an obscure plant can have an impact on many people through medicine and plant breeding.  It cannot help but make one wonder what unknown treasures we lose each year as literally hundreds of ďunimportantĒ plants become extinct around the world.