One of the best things about spring is seeing the crocus pop up in random patches. My next door neighbour enjoys a ‘runway’ of crocuses across the lawn. I’ve also seen them in weird-shaped gatherings beside the motorway.
So what better way to round off the fabulous folklore of February flowers than with this seasonal favourite?
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What’s in a name?
Some people say the name ‘crocus’ actually means thread, referring to its long, thread-like stamens. Others say it derives from krokos in Greek. Because it’s similar to words meaning ‘saffron’, I think that’s more likely since the crocus gives us saffron spice from its stamens.
According to The Poison Garden, it’s easily confused with the colchicum, otherwise known as the autumn crocus. This very similar plant bears a range of unusual folk names. These include “naked ladies, naked boy [and] son-before-the-father”. Apparently, this is because the leaves and seeds of the colchicum appear in the spring and die back in summer. When the flowers bloom in autumn, they do so “naked”.
Unlike the crocus, the colchicum IS poisonous (yep, I managed to return to poisonous flowers!). It contains both colchicine and colchiceine, which are toxic. Many of the stories around colchicum-related deaths involve people mistaking the plant for wild garlic.
Colchicums have six stamens, where the crocus only has three. You can also tell them apart because crocuses come up in spring, colchicums in autumn. If in doubt, don’t ingest them.
Like the other flowers we’ve looked at in February, the crocus comes with a range of origin myths. They mostly come from ancient Greece.
In the most common version of the story, the human youth Crocus had an affair with a nymph called Smilax. For whatever reason, he became unhappy with the relationship and the gods turned him into a plant. (This idea of gods turning people into plants seems pretty common – see my article on roses for more examples). For some reason, they turned Smilax into a yew tree.
That said, others think Crocus killed himself when the gods refused permission for him to marry Smilax. She wasn’t overly pleased with the turn of events either. Flora, goddess of flowers, turned them into plants out of pity.
Selenophile at Elune Blue recites a third version of the story. In this one, Smilax got bored of Crocus but he wouldn’t take the hint. She turned him into a flower to get some peace from his advances. In this version, the crocus represents unrequited love.
An alternative version of the origin myth by Galen, the great Greek physician, places Crocus as Hermes’ companion. A game of discus went wrong and Hermes accidentally killed Crocus. Distraught by what happened, Hermes turned him into a flower.
That’s surely one way to hide the evidence.
And a third version says Zeus and Hera were ‘enjoying each other’s company’ so passionately that the river bank they lay on erupted with crocus flowers. They’ve been associated with love ever since. The fact they bloom near Valentine’s Day probably helps. In one source, the crocus was even dedicated to St. Valentine (Phelps 1850: 206).
The Crocus in the Language of Flowers
The crocus traditionally means gladness and cheerfulness. White croci usually represented truth, innocence and purity. The purple variety imply success, pride and dignity. The yellow type is joy.
Some think the crocus was so potent that it could inspire love.
In the Far East, it was considered a good omen if it bloomed on your loved one’s grave (Froude 1870: 713). Though it’s unlikely it was a good omen for them.
Folklore of the Crocus
In England, people ate crocus seeds to ease the pains of rheumatism. Pliny apparently advised people to wear saffron around the neck to prevent drunkenness (much like wearing wreaths of violet flowers). Yet in Switzerland, mothers put saffron around their childrens’ necks “to keep them from harm” (Froude 1870: 713).
An old superstition relates to the wild flowers you might gather in the spring. The flowers you pick give you the initials of your future husband. So “if you pick crocus, anemone, and eyebright, your lover will have C. A. E. for his initials” (Daniels and Stevans 2003: 788).
But be careful about picking crocuses. In Austria, picking them is considered bad luck (Daniels and Stevans 2003: 778). An article in Fraser’s Magazine goes even further, saying only “healthy young girls or strong men” can pick the flowers because “it tends to draw away the strength”. According to the article, in
The Magical Crocus
he crocus is traditionally used by witches for the spring festivals, Imbolc and Ostara. It’s also associated with goddesses like Aphrodite and Venus, which is probably due to its status as a love plant. Though its links with Persephone could be due to its return every spring (like other bulbs).
The flower is also associated with the sign of Aquarius, along with amaranth, mimosa and snowdrops (Webster 2008: 106).
So if you wanted to use it in a magical sense, its scent would be a good way to involve the plant. Or if your budget will stretch to it, use a little saffron.
Witchipedia notes that saffron works well in spells for wealth, strength, or recognition. Saffron is associated with the element of fire, and the star sign of Leo. Obviously, saffron’s hefty price tag makes it an excellent spice to attract more wealth!
Whether you go for the white, yellow or purple variety, crocuses are a wonderful way to inject a little colour to your garden. And with associations around love, cheerfulness and wealth, maybe they’ll bring those things your way?
Fancy growing crocuses yourself? Try these instructions at Gardenerspath.com.
What do you think of the humble crocus? Let me know below! And add your email address to get updates when these articles go live.
Daniels, Dora Linn and C. M. Stevans (2003 ), Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World: Volume 2, Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific.
Froude, James Anthony (ed.) (1870), Fraser’s Magazine, Vol 2., London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
Phelps, Almira Lincoln (1850), Familiar Lectures on Botany, Cincinnati: Huntington and Savage.
Webster, Richard (2008), The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
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