At this time of year, the colchicums are at their best, spreading out (usually under trees) in Cambridge University Botanic Garden in an apparently effortless, though brief, display. Come to think of it, I am not sure if I have ever knowingly seen a colchicum leaf? Once the flowers have done their autumn thing, the plants go dormant until the leaves grow up the following spring, by which time they are not very noticeable among the other burgeoning greenery.
The plants’ most common English name is ‘naked ladies’ (or occasionally ‘naked boys’) because of course they emerge without any foliage to conceal their modesty. Their other familiar names are ‘autumn crocus’ and ‘meadow saffron’, which are unhelpful because colchicums are neither croci nor saffron.
The crucial way in which they differ from croci is that they have three styles and six stamens (see above), while the crocus species have only one style and three stamens. Also, the corms look different: colchicum quite tall, crocus like a squashed ball.
Here is the taxonomy bit … Colchicum, in the family Colchicaceae and order Liliales, is from Greek Κολχίkον, ‘a thing from Colchis’, this being the area, thought to be on the coast of present day Georgia, where the ancient city of Colchis was the home of King Aeëtes, his daughter Medea, and the Golden Fleece – all of which ended badly for Jason and the Argonauts. (I remember reading that the Golden Fleece legend arose because the inhabitants used to peg fleeces across the streams which flowed into the River Phasis (today the Rioni) to catch the gold dust that flowed from the rich ore deposits in the north of the country, but have no idea whether this was (possibly) fact or just fiction.)
The name is Linnaean, though a very surprising number of alternative (and now illegitimate) names were also come up with, including Bulbocodium, Celsia, Hermodactylum and Paludana. The latter is given by Richard Salisbury, and is very odd, given that it means ‘marshy’, and colchicums are famous for flowering with no soil and no moisture – there was indeed a fashion for doing this a few years (or possibly several decades) ago.
They are found, unsurprisingly, on the eastern Mediterranean coast, in western Asia, in eastern and southern Africa (where apparently rodents are among the pollinators), and in some Alpine areas.
There are upward of one hundred species, many of which are named from the location in which they are found (chalcedonicum, corsicum, euboeum, lusitanum, macedonicum, peloponnesiacum, persicum, turcicum …), but some of which are not confirmed, as they may be naturally occurring hybrids. And of course there are now dozens of hybrids bred for the garden (or indeed the windowsill).
The plant is extremely toxic, and although the derived drug colchicine is used in low doses for gout, Familial Mediterranean fever and Behçet’s disease (WARNING: don’t look up the latter if you are of a nervous disposition: the symptoms and photos are revolting), it has also been used historically for murder. Possibly the most famous case in the UK is that of the serial killer (before the term was invented) Catherine Wilson (1822–62), who almost certainly killed many other people before the unfortunate Mrs Maria Soames, of whose murder she was eventually convicted, and for which she was hung on 20 October 1862. (Interestingly, there were no appeals for clemency, which is most unusual for women in this period.)
An account of the trial and execution can be found here, in one of those gruesome broadsheets which the Victorians loved. Wilson’s modus operandi was to ‘go out as a nurse’, persuade her gullible patient to leave her money, and then poison her. (She also probably poisoned her husband (a bottle of colchicine was found in his bedroom) and at least two of her lovers.) She had previously been tried for the attempted murder of Mrs Sarah Carnell in Kirkby Lonsdale, Westmorland (as recounted later in the reminiscences of her defence counsel, Montague Williams, QC), by giving her a ‘soothing draft’ which she spat out again – luckily, as it turned out to contain enough sulphuric acid to kill fifty people … Wilson fled to London but was caught and brought to trial. She claimed that the draught was given to her in error by a pharmacist, but in spite of the judge pointing out that, ‘had the bottle contained the poison when the prisoner received it, it would have become red-hot or would have burst, before she arrived at the invalid’s bedside’, the jury nevertheless acquitted her.
For Mrs Soames’ murder, Williams again defended her, but the evidence was too strong this time – even though claims that seven people with whom Wilson had lived with as nurse had died after rewriting their wills to leave her some money were regarded as inadmissible. According to Williams, the judge called him to his chambers after the conviction, and said: ‘I sent for you to tell you that you did that case remarkably well. But it was no good; the facts were too strong … I defended several … notable criminals when I was on the Norfolk Circuit; but, if it will be of any satisfaction to you, I may tell you that in my opinion you have to-day defended the greatest criminal that ever lived.’
Apart from this rather gloomy aside, there is nothing not to like about colchicums. I have never grown them before, but after doing the looking-up for this piece, and seeing the gorgeous variety of colours available, I am rather tempted for next year …