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What Is Meadow Saffron?

By O. Parker
Updated May 16, 2024
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Meadow saffron is in the plant family Colchicaceae and blooms in late summer and early fall. It is not related to spring crocus or the saffron crocus used as a spice. This late-flowering crocus is commonly called autumn crocus, naked lady and wonder bulb. Meadow saffron is identified under the species name Colchicum autumnale.

This flower is used as an ornamental plant in the landscape and also is cultivated for its medicinal uses, though as a medicine it should be used with extreme caution. All parts of the plant are poisonous when ingested, and the roots can even cause skin irritation on contact. As a medicinal treatment, meadow saffron is commonly used in homeopathic medicine as an herbal extract to treat gout and inflammation. It has only been used in medicine since the 18th century due to its reputation as a poisonous plant.

Meadow saffron blooms in late summer and fall, producing white or pale purple flowers that stand alone on erect flower stalks that grow 4 to 12 inches (about 10 to 30 cm) tall. The leaves emerge in winter and early spring, after the flowers die back. Once the leaves fall, usually by early summer, autumn crocus goes into a short dormancy period before flowering again.

The plants grow from fleshy roots called corms. Left to itself, meadow saffron will naturalize in the garden, as the corms continuously produce offshoots. The corms grow best when left undisturbed but can be divided every three years for propagation. Autumn crocus should be divided in summer during the dormancy period.

A spot in full sun for six hours a day or more, or in part sun for four to six hours a day, is ideal for meadow saffron. The corms are prone to rot when planted in wet areas, so rock gardens or areas with sandy or loamy soil that has good drainage usually provides the best growing environments. This plant tolerates a wide pH range and thrives in soil with a pH anywhere from 4.5 to 7.5.

Meadow saffron can be planted in the garden in summer. The corms are planted 6 inches (about 15 cm) apart and 3 inches (about 8 cm) deep. In summer, water should be reduced to allow the corms to go into a dormancy period.

Meadow saffron can also be grown indoors in a bowl of pebbles filled with water. The pebbles should fill the bowl 2 inches (about 5 cm) deep. The corms can be placed on top of the pebbles. As the roots develop, they attach to the rocks and hold themselves upright. The water should be kept level with the area at the base of the corms.

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Discussion Comments

By ZipLine — On Apr 26, 2014

@fBoyle-- Meadow saffron has to be planted in August if seeds are used. Of course the seeds will not germinate if the weather is cold.

Also, it takes at least four years for the plant to flower after seeds have been planted. The bulbs will form but they will not flower for quite a while. The plant prefers sandy soil with average moisture.

Animals shouldn't eat the foliage or meadow saffron because it really is poisonous. Meadow saffron grows in our area and some cattle got ill after eating it.

By fBoyle — On Apr 25, 2014

@donasmrs-- I'm not sure. I've actually always known this plant by "autumn crocus." The flowers look like crocus flowers and it usually blooms in autumn so this name makes a lot of sense.

Autumn crocus is beautiful. I absolutely love the flowers but it can be difficult to grow if the conditions are not right. From my experience, autumn crocus does not like cold and will not germinate from seed if the climate is fairly cold. So it can't be grown all over the US.

Those who have the right conditions should consider planting autumn crocus though because as far as I know, this plant is at risk of being endangered. Plus, it's a beautiful plant.

By donasmrs — On Apr 24, 2014

I don't understand where the "saffron" in "meadow saffron" came from. I first thought that perhaps meadow saffron has yellow flowers and was called "saffron" for this reason. But no, it has purple flowers. It doesn't make much sense.

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