Not gonna lie – I was excited to see these little ones blooming along the Perkiomen Trail. I took this photo Tuesday March 11, 2014 while on a 6 mile walk on this 20 mile rail trail in Southeast Pennsylvania. Anyone who knows me knows I love winter and snow. We all know how snowy it has been in the northeast and mid atlantic. I have snowboarded, snow tubed, snow shoed and even turned my back deck steps into a sledding track, but I am running out of things to do in the snow. I am ready to plant my peas. I am ready to sift compost. I am ready for the skunk cabbage, which should be up already around me but isn’t yet. So when I saw these petite beauties blooming along the trail, I giggled and did a little dance (really!). Honey bees were as excited as me, floating in and out of pollen-filled flower after flower, in this sunny little haven. Ah, signs of spring, signs of life, signs of what’s next.
So what are these and why are they blooming in the woods, along a rail trail? Crocus, as you see in this photo, are a spring blooming bulb, or more accurately, a corm. Though there are earlier blooming bulbs that will do fine in our landscapes, this is one of the most popular and frequently planted. You can buy these as corms in any garden center, plant them in the fall and be rewarded with pink, purple, white or yellow blooms in early spring. On hikes, you may see these blooming in what seems like a natural area if you are exploring anywhere near historic landscapes. These have been planted for generations. In some cases, during landscape renovation over the years, the soil was discarded in woodland areas, releasing the bulbs into the wild. In this case, this stand happens to be directly across the street from a garden center, I am thinking some corm-filled soil has been deposited in the woods over the years.
Is there a problem with these in our woods? Well, as I mentioned above, the honey bees certainly seemed happy to have them blooming. But that makes sense, since the honey bees we have here are European and these Crocus have been in various parts of Europe since the 16th century. I am sure native pollinators will find this oasis of food among the snow a welcome site as well. An argument could be made that these lovelies are displacing native wildflowers that would otherwise fill the void in this woodland. However, Crocus are not on any watch list of invasive plant species, or any “do not plant” list. In my experience they are not aggressive and really don’t cause much concern. In reality, I am not even sure how this bunch has made it past the squirrels!
I was grateful for the spot of bright purple along a hike primarily filled with browns, grays and white and am looking forward to getting those peas in the ground.
And in case you’re wondering… Just HOW did the Crocus get all the way from the Middle East to Southeastern PA anyway? This ornamental version of crocus can thank the edible version of the crocus for the worldwide travel. Saffron, a very valuable spice and dye, is derived from the crocus. The saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), a Palestinian native, is a fall blooming crocus and not the same used for ornament in our spring landscapes. But because of its culinary value, people became very interested in crocus of all types. Some were found less than satisfactory for use in the kitchen but perfectly beautiful for the landscape. According to American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century by Ann Leighton, Peter Collinson, an English Botanist, was known to correspond with Philadelphia horticulturist John Bartram. Bartram used to send American plant samples to Collinson and, in turn, Collinson sent Bartram European plant samples. Once Collinson sent Bartram “twenty sorts” of Crocus vernus for his Philadelphia garden. The spring blooming crocus is thought to have spurred Holland’s bulb boom once introduced to Europe at the end of the 16th century. The crocus quickly became a popular garden plant and was included in the plants brought by many colonists to North America.