One of my favourite early spring plants is Crocus flavus, whose bright orange-yellow flowers emerge during the latter part of February. It is a native to Greece, former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and NW Turkey, but has been cultivated in the UK for over 400 years.
The flowers stand no more than 5-6 cm above the ground, with the perianth segments (the ‘petals’ being no more than 3.5 cm long. It is not a big crocus, therefore, and most of the commonly grown selections of C. sieberi, C. chrysanthus and its hybrids or C. tommasinianus have larger flowers; but none are so richly coloured as C. flavus. E.A. Bowles described how it resembles a little flame, and quotes both Sophocles and Tennyson in support, the latter’s contribution being ‘and at their feet the Crocus brake like fire.’
It has the amiable characteristic of self-sowing itself with moderate freedom, and a colony will soon develop after the first few corms have been planted. If possible, start with seed, as it ensures that there is some genetic variation in the group and this does seem to help seed-set in the genus Crocus. The seed is comparatively large and a recognizable rich russety red. It should be sown in late summer and left in a cold frame or other cool pace until it germinates. I prefer to bring pots of germinated bulb seed into a cool greenhouse, as it allows one to keep a closer eye on the young plants, and provides a more comfortable growing environment for the seedlings. Gentle feeding with Phostrogen or similar fertilizer, and regular repotting when dormant, will give you corms that flower in their third or fourth year after sowing. The corm tunics are strongly ridged and are also a deep russet colour. They have the unusual characteristic of being elongated to form a tube through which the shoot emerges, and this persists for several seasons if not disturbed.
A very hardy plant, Crocus flavus will grow well outdoors in a well-drained sunny spot, on the rock garden or in thin grass, spreading gently to form a colony. It could be grown in a pan in the alpine house, but the corms should not become too hot and dry in summer. In the garden it looks very good with Crocus tommasinianus, or the smaller snowdrops and other early bulbs.