Autumn crocus (botanical name Colchicum autumnale) is a perennial flowering plant belonging to genus Colchicum and grows up to a height of about a foot (30 cm). This herb bears deep green leaves whose shape resembles tulips. The leaves emerge from a corm - a plump, tuberous base. The flowers of autumn crocus are pale purple or white in color.
In the 5th century, medical practitioners in the Byzantine Empire (an eastern Roman empire) held autumn crocus in high esteem owing to the herb's effectiveness in treating joint problems, such as arthritis and rheumatism, while physicians in the Arab world recommended the use of autumn crocus for treating gout. In England, during the 17th and 18th centuries, autumn crocus was credited by the London Pharmacopoeia, but was dropped for a while and re-established later.
Contemporary physicians and scientists are of the view that the herbalists of ancient times were accurate in assessing the worth of the herb because contemporary science has proved that an alkaloid present in autumn crocus called colchicine helps in providing relief from pain and inflammation caused by gout. It is interesting to note that till date chemists obtain this alkaloid (colchicines) directly from autumn crocus as they are yet to be successful in synthesizing the substance economically.
Corm, seed, flower.
Going by myths or fables, the term ‘crocus' suggests the location where the gods Jove and Juno rested together or the site where the occultist Medea dropped an elixir of life. Species related to autumn crocus yield saffron that have been used since the ancient time in the form of a spice as well as a dye. The corm of Colchicum autumnale is basically an underground tubular part of the plant that has been employed since long in the form of a strong poison. Often, this bulblike part was pulverized into a powder and administered with wine. Greek naturalist Theophrastus documented that slaves consumed small portions of the crocus corm when they were irate with their masters so that they might fall sick and are rendered unfit for work. In present times, scientists employ colchicines, the main alkaloid of the herb, to create strains of crops, which yield larger vegetables and fruits and are more resistant to diseases.
Colchicine, an alkaloid substance, forms the primary active principle of autumn crocus. It may be noted that in contemporary times, this alkaloid substance is among the most important medication that is used in treating gout. In fact, it is believed that the ancient Egyptians also employed colchicines for the same purpose about 4,000 years ago. In addition, autumn crocus or Colchicum autumnale is also used for treating conditions, such as dropsy, rheumatism and enlarged prostate. It is interesting to note that the Egyptians as well as Israeli physicians have used colchicine to treat hereditary Mediterranean fever, which is generally accompanied by chest pain, abdominal pain and joint pain. Since it has been proved that colchicine thwarts cell division, scientists have studied this alkaloid for its potential use in treating cancer. However, at present, colchicine is considered to be extremely toxic for use in cancer therapy. Currently, research is underway to find the effectiveness of colchicine in treating cirrhosis and chronic hepatitis.
It may be noted that Colchicum autumnale is considered to be among the most excellent medications for treating gout pain. Many physicians have successfully cure leukemia using autumn crocus and, to a certain extent, they have also been successful in treating Behcet's syndrome (a persisting malady distinguished by frequent occurrences of leukemia and ulcers) with this toxic plant. Ingesting autumn crocus even in small doses generally results in major side effects. This herb is applied topically to ease itchiness as well as neuralgia.
In contemporary herbalism, autumn crocus continues to be employed to provide relief from pain and inflammation caused by severe rheumatism. However, using this herb too frequently is also known to stimulate attacks of the complaint more often. The seeds as well as the corm of this herb possess cathartic, analgesic, anti-rheumatic and emetic properties. The seeds and corm of autumn crocus are primarily employed to treat problems related to rheumatism and gout. It needs to be underlined that autumn crocus is an extremely toxic plant and, hence, it should never be prescribed for people enduring kidney ailments and pregnant women. In addition, this herb should always be used under the guidance of a competent medical practitioner. Freshly dug up corm or bulb of autumn crocus is also used to make a homeopathic medication, which is given to treat rheumatism, nausea and diarrhea.
Other medical uses
Habitat and cultivation
Autumn crocus or Colchicum autumnale is widespread in Europe as well as the northern regions of Africa. This herb may be found growing naturally in moist grasslands and forest lands. In several places, autumn crocus is also cultivated.
Autumn crocus has a preference for a fertile soil that is well-drained and located in a sunlit position. This herb has the aptitude to endure shade, but is loathe to arid soil. Colchicum autumnale can endure a pH varying between 4.5 and 7.5. In effect, the plants of this species are very resilient and can tolerate very low temperatures, up to approximately -20°C. The tuber-like roots or bulbs of the plant are usually dormant, but reasonably enduring and have the aptitude to tolerate soil temperatures as low as -5°C. It is very easy to grow as well as naturalize this plant species in grass. In addition, autumn crocus also grows and thrives well in the midst of shrubs and on the fringes of forest lands. The corms or bulbs of this plant are normally about 7 cm to 10 cm deep inside the soil during July. The best part is that the plants of this species appear to be invulnerable to preying by rabbits. However, it is possible that slugs may show aggression towards the corms of autumn crocus. Moreover, butterflies and bees are drawn by the flowers of autumn crocus.
Autumn crocus or Colchicum autumnale is generally propagated by its seeds, which are ideally sown immediately when they mature in the early part of the summer in a cold frame or a seed bed. The germination process may be extremely sluggish and even take as many as 18 months when the temperature is 15°C. It is advisable that you sow the seeds of autumn crocus somewhat sparsely to ensure that they need not be transplanted during their first growth season. During the first summer of the plants' growth, it is advisable to apply liquid nourishment with a view to make sure that they receive adequate sustenance. When the seedlings are dormant, prick them out individually and may be put two seedlings in one pot and continue to grow them in a cold frame or greenhouse for a minimum period of two years. You need to transplant the seedlings in their permanent positions outdoors while they are still dormant. Autumn crocus seedlings take as many as four to five years to blossom.
Alternately, autumn crocus or Colchicum autumnale can also be propagated by means of the division of the bulbs during June or July when the leaves of the plant have withered away. In effect, it is possible to plant the comparatively bigger bulbs straight away into their permanent positions outdoors. However, it is ideal to plant and grow them in containers in a cold frame for about one year prior to planting them outdoors. It may be noted that plants of this species may be divided every alternate year if you desire to grow them quickly.
It may be noted that the seeds of autumn crocus are harvested during the early part of summer, while the tubular corms are dug up during the period between mid to the latter part of summer, when the plant has completely withered away. The corms of the herb are dried up for use when required later.
Chemical analysis of autumn crocus has revealed that this herb encloses a number of flavonoids and alkaloids, counting colchicines. Colchicine possesses anti-inflammatory attributes and is employed in conventional medicine to treat severe attacks of gout. It may be noted that scientists have used colchicine in laboratory to develop novel genetic strains.
Side effects and cautions
Since Colchicum autumnale or autumn crocus encloses highly toxic substances, it is warned that no part of this plant ought to be ever harvested or ingested for the purpose of self-medication. In fact, use of this herb has resulted in numerous cases of poisonings as well as fatalities throughout the world, especially in countries like the United States, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Japan and others. Frequently, poisoning by autumn crocus is owing to the fact that unsuspecting chefs mistake this plant for wild garlic (botanical name Allium ursinum) - a widely accepted European spice.
When any individual experiences poisoning due to ingestion of Colchicum autumnale, he/ she will have symptoms like vomiting, a burning feeling in the stomach and throat, a feeble, but rapid pulse, kidney failure, hypotension, and generally these may cause death. In addition, poisoning with autumn crocus may also result in abrupt cardiac arrest even 36 to 54 hours after ingesting the plant or any of its parts. It has been found that majority of the deaths due to Colchicum autumnale poisoning are owing to shock and happen during the first 72 hours of consuming the plant. In addition, people who might be fortunate to survive poisoning with autumn colchicines are likely to endure chronic metabolic or neurological problems.