A neglected Christmas flowering charmer
The contrast couldn’t be greater. After the violent gales of the last two weeks, today sees a welcome return to our more normal early December weather for here in the South West. I was frantically trying to catch up with the last of my bulb planting accompanied by the exuberant song of a robin, presumably urging me to even greater efforts to find his lunch, when I noticed that the leaves of Crocus laevigatus ‘Fontenayi’ were well through, which is always an encouraging sign.
It is a fascinating and rather underrated crocus. It has tiny corms that look more like a small, elongated hazelnut than a crocus as they are completely encased in a hard tunic unlike other crocus which tend to have a more shredded wheat appearance. Indeed, its name ‘laevigatus’ means smooth or polished.
This bright little crocus chooses the very end of autumn, or more correctly, the beginning of winter to flower, usually just before Christmas. Its distribution in the wild runs from mainland Greece to Crete, where it becomes much smaller and white flowered rather than the more common lilac- purple. The form in cultivation goes under the name ‘Fontenayi’ and has good sized flowers with well rounded petals. Like so many crocus there is a strong contrast in colour between the outside and inside. The inside is lilac-purple while the outer petals are suffused with a creamy buff and have deep purple-maroon feathering superimposed on them. This means that it is easily overlooked when the flowers are closed, only revealing its presence when the sun opens the flowers. It should therefore be planted in a well drained spot that receives maximum winter sunshine.
It is also possible to grow it in grass. One year we had a surplus of bulbs and I planted some under the trees at the bottom of the garden where the bright blue autumn crocus, C.speciosus, does so well. Although it has grown well and flowers profusely each year it doesn’t really make much of a display as it sensibly keeps its head well down among the leaves. It is one of those plants that you have to go and look for. It is much better on the rock garden bank.
C. laevigatus ‘Fontenayi’ is a very hardy, even the flowers will survive many days of unbroken frost, and long lived crocus. My original clump is now over 25 years old and is increasing steadily. It certainly deserves to be much more widely known.
Crocus laevigatus ‘Fontenayi’ is available from our autumn catalogue. See Online Store for availability.