Autumn seems a good time to talk about meadow saffron, a beautiful autumn-flowering plant that I have recently seen an incredibly large swathe of. It is a wild plant with pale pink goblet-shaped flowers held on fragile silvery tube-like stalks that are not actually true stems. Neither, despite its name, is it the saffron familiar to cooks. The flowers appear at a different time of year from the leaves and because of thisthey gained the old folk-name of “naked ladies”. A favoured spot for the plant is a dampish meadow and Worcestershire was once a stronghold of its territory.
Old botany books of the county were of the opinion that it was so common that it only warranted a brief description, but how times change. Now I know of only one nearby place where it can be found and that is Oldwood Common near Tenbury. I have never ventured to see its September flowers but have seen it in the summer when tall lush sword-like leaf growth is its only feature. The leaves reach a length of 30 centimetres and can be 4 centimetres wide. In contrast the flower only reaches a height of 20 centimetres. The leaves die down before the flowers appear.
The leaves are one of the reasons for the plant’s widespread decline. They contain a chemical that can poison cattle so it was not a welcome addition to grazing land. In an old pre-First World War hop-picking account that I came upon, a striking hop-picker (not an unusual occurrence at the beginning of September) was employed by a farmer to pull up meadow saffron instead. He was paid in wild rabbits, which he felt a fair exchange, before his hop-picking re-started. The other causes of its decline are the drainage of damp farmland and the collection of its bulbs during the Second World War. The same chemical that is dangerous to cattle can, in appropriate doses, be used to treat gout in humans. The drug is still prescribed and is called colchicine. During the war, imports were interrupted and native bulbs made up the difference.
Meadow saffron looks like a crocus but its Latin name is Colchicum autumnale. True crocuses can also be found in flower in September but most of them are introduced bulbs, some of which have become naturalised. The commonest are escaped garden varieties and in a very few places the true saffron crocus grows, although this is said to have been brought to Britain during the Crusades.
Finally, where was the huge swathe of the plants that I saw recently? Ewyas Harold Common in Herefordshire, which is a large common managed for wildlife and a hotspot for rare butterflies. It was an absolute delight to suddenly come upon simply thousands of meadow saffron plants in bloom. They made for a very memorable walk. Before I leave the subject of large numbers, I’d just like to mention that this is my hundredth magazine article, I hope my ideas can keep on coming.