OF THE WEEK
Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
crocus, Fall crocus, Meadow saffron, Mysteria,
Scientific name: Colchicum autumnale
of scientific name:
- from Colchis, ancient name of a country
on the Black Sea
- autumnal, in reference to the flowering time of
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,
The Spring Flowering Crocus, in contrast,
is a member of the Iris Family (Iridaceae) along
with the Iris and Gladiolus.
to Europe, North Africa and Asia, the Autumn
Crocus is just one species of about 70 in the
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
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
The foliage withers by early summer, and
the plant remains dormant within the soil usually
until September in our area, when it flowers
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.
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
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.
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
slaves were known to have eaten the plant to make
themselves sick, and even to commit suicide.
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
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
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
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.