Bieberstein’s crocus, Crocus speciosus, is native to northern and central Turkey, the Caucasus, northern Iran, and the Crimea, and was first described by Friedrich August Marschall von Bieberstein in Flora Taurico Caucasica (1808-1819).
Born in Stuttgart in 1768 von Bieberstein was primarily a military man working as secretary and later aide-de-camp to the Russian general Count Kochovoski in the Crimea. After meeting the German naturalist, Peter Simon von Pallas, he began to collect plants systematically laying the foundations for his seminal botanical work on the region. In 1795 he returned to St. Petersburg and was sent with the invading forces into Persia. Collecting herbarium specimens all along the way, he published an account of his journey in 1798, which included descriptions of 74 new species.
In 1799, von Bieberstein was appointed privy-councillor responsible for the development of sericulture (rearing of silkworms for the production of silk) in southern Russia, which provided further opportunities to travel and continue his botanical studies. In 1804 he was sent on a scientific mission to Germany and France, which enabled him to study specimens from the Near East in the Tournefort herbarium in Paris and complete his work on first flora of the Crimeo-Caucasian region.
There are over 30 species of crocus which flower in the autumn, most of which originate from Greece, Turkey and Iran. They all require well-drained soil and a dry period in the summer with flowering initiated by the lower temperatures and increasing soil moisture of the autumn. Only four or five species are commonly grown as garden plants, the others are either rare in cultivation or need to be grown in pots or under cover.
At present I only grow Crocus speciosus, one small group shelters under a clump of kniphofia and the other sits by the wall in the cottage garden. They always produce a succession of flowers in early October, which are frequently flattened by the autumn gales. However, this year flowering coincided with a spell of calm, dry weather and their veined, mauve goblets with a shock of orange stigmas, have delighted me for days. It will apparently naturalise readily by producing offsets and seed, but in my garden this appears to be a slow process. I will probably not plant more in the cottage garden, but I shall look for a suitable sheltered crevice in the new rock garden.
Crocus pulchellus is very similar to speciosus, but it has a stronger stem and is less prone to flopping over after rain. It is probable that many of the bulbs sold as autumn flowering crocus in garden centres are Crocus pulchellus x speciosus hybrids, accounting for the more robust nature of some of the named varieties.
In the future I may be tempted to try some of the other autumn flowering species, but the list of bulbs I’d like to grow would fill the greenhouse and cold frames several times over. However, my resilience to temptation is low, especially when I discover a seed list containing interesting species.