Meadow Saffron is not a common wildflower in Ireland and it is a thrill to walk through a meadow where it is in great number and to even come across the rare white-flowered form which occurs now and again. There are a number of areas along the banks of the River Nore where it grows quite well and, thankfully, a number where the land is being managed and farmed in a manner which ensures this plant continues to do well there. Damp meadows by rivers seem to especially suit it though, of course, we can also grow it with great ease in our gardens and there are a number of named varieties available which all do well in ordinary garden conditions and increase with ease.
Colchicum autumnale is regularly called “Autumn Crocus” which is understandable given its similarity in shape and growth habit to the crocus but it is not a crocus at all and not even in the same plant family as the crocus. Nor, indeed, does it produce any saffron! However, such mis-names enter into common usage and persist. A more suitable common name is “Naked Ladies”, a name applied to several plants which flower without any leaves in growth. The leaves of the meadow saffron appear in spring and, unfortunately, because they are broad and resemble wild garlic there have been reports of the leaves being picked and eaten with dire results for the consumer as they are very poisonous and without an antidote.
All is not bad with the meadow saffron as it contains the chemical colchicine which has been used for the treatment of gout. Before World War II, the British supply of colchicine came mainly from Germany but when this supply was interrupted there was an organised collection of meadow saffron throughout Britain which lead to a decline in its population there.
We are fortunate that the populations of this rare plant are being actively managed and conserved – I am especially familiar with this work in Co. Kilkenny – and I hope this beautiful plant continues to thrive and that we can enjoy it for many years to come.