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Colchicums at Benton End

James Horner, Benton End Head Gardener

The flowering of the colchicums occurs on the cusp of autumn, a little before leaves truly start to fall, in that delicious spell when the light begins to soften and nights quickly shorten. It didn’t take me many years of gardening to realise that these few weeks, following the cutting of meadows and the first frosts arriving, is the quietest time of the year for a gardener. The deadheading goes on and fruits are ripe to harvest, the garden ticks over, and there is little can be added now to better it for this year. And so, cometh the colchicums and with plenty enough time in which to admire them.

Colchicum speciosum ‘Album’ at Benton End

The colchicums in Benton End’s walled garden fall into the marvellous category of survivor plants cultivated by Cedric Morris several decades ago. At the time of his death, Cedric entrusted a fellow plants person, Jenny Robinson, to give away his plants to friends and gardeners who would maintain their cultivation. This she did but fortunately many bulbs slipped through her fingers and remained in situ. In the case of colchicums, these corms have persisted and in the past forty years have bulked up and spread. All whilst the garden has blurred at the edges and reverted to nature’s way. These survivors have become our starting point for reviving Benton End’s garden.

Having started at Benton End in March this year I was only first aware of the quantity and location of colchicums by the clumps of their broad, Veratrum like, foliage. It’s senescing later in August gave me the cue that I could safely commence cutting the then long meadow grass without harming the enrichment of the corms. I had noticed an unusually narrow and short leaved clump which I first thought may even be Tulipa sprengeri and then when no scarlet flowers appeared I dismissed that as a false hope. (Coincidentally only one T. sprengeri appeared this late May so lots of work to do on that front.) Fast forward to the first week of September and these strong clumps turned out to be Colchicum x agrippinum, which is very unmistakeable due to it’s tessellation (a chequer board effect, similar to snakeshead fritillary) across it’s flowers. It’s stoutness I came to be fond of too, for the three weeks it continued to throw up flowers.

Keen to explore Suffolk wildlife and its landscape, I ventured to see UK native meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale) flowering in their thousands at the Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve Martins’ Meadow. Identically to Benton End’s summer grass growth, management of Martins’ Meadow involves an August cut, particularly to benefit the colchicum. It is forever rewarding to witness a familiar plant naturalising on a landscape scale. The variety of flower colour was stunning on masse, and ever so slightly the form of flowers varied too. Sadly, throughout the UK there are very few sites where such meadow saffron strongholds have remained. All parts of the plant are poisonous and particularly to cattle, whilst the corm is also a source of colchicine, a pharmaceutical drug used to treat gout. And historically farmers have made efforts to rid grazing land of established colonies, with the added incentive of selling the corms along to the pharmaceutical industry.

Colchicum autumnale at Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve Martins’ Meadow

Back at Benton End and into the true goblets of rich colour, the cultivars with Colchicum speciosum as a strong factor in their parentage began pushing up flowers in mid September. I was keenly expectant for what was first known as ‘Cedric’s Darkest’, prior to being renamed by the RHS trials committee as ‘Benton End’. This thankfully has survived  in numbers and multiple clumps appeared with their unique plum coloured flower tube atop with vivid rosy purple flowers with yellow centres. Beneath the hibiscus and on the edge of a groaningly large coppiced hazel these reverberations of Cedric’s garden live on, his collections, ‘inventions’ and selections stand the test of time, displaying his incredible eye for stand out plants.

Thanks to Rod Leeds for help identifying the colchicum at Benton End.

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Follow James Horner: @jameshornergardens

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