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CROCUS AND EARLY SPRING FLOWERS
WINTER in the bulb country is not a very attractive time, at least to the foreigner. The same possibly may be said of winter in England, though few healthy Englishmen, unless tied very tightly to town, admit it. Winter in Holland is long, and, more often than not, very cold. The canals are often frozen for a considerable time, when the easiest way to get about in the country districts is on skates. Nearly all Dutchmen are at home on skates; comparatively few are clever oarsmen, though one might have thought they had equal opportunities. The reason probably is, that one can go upon one's work or business on skates, and save rather than lose time thereby; whereas, in the average man's circumstances, one can only row for recreation. In England, of course, such a reason would not operate; and, given the Dutch facilities, one can imagine that as many good sportsmen would assemble to watch inter-county contests on the frozen or liquid water (according to season) as now enthusiastically look on at cricket or football matches. Certainly there are very marked differences between the nations.
They show among the women not less than the men. The pride, at least of the more old-fashioned Dutch housewife, is her stove, the closed stoves, which heat the room very well and very cleanly, give little assistance to ventilation, and offer none of the cheer and sympathy of the open fire. I have only met or heard of one English housewife who was proud of a shining stove, and she lived in the Potteries, and was the wife of a cheerful drunkard. In summer the majority of the stoves in Dutch houses are taken down and put away -- one would like to know where. They must require room to store, and present an interesting sight, wrapped in winding-sheets of greased paper, keeping their summer Sabbath, like the dead kings waiting the summons of Charlemagne's sword. But the finest and most handsome of stoves are not taken down, they remain in place through the summer, covered when the weather is damp and when the room they adorn is not to be occupied; on no account to be used for fire -- standing as a testimony to the owner's housewifery and an impressive object to the visitor. One visitor, at least, was impressed by such a shining steel tower, impressed with the amount of elbow-grease required to keep it in order, if nothing else; though that same visitor had the bad taste to admire far more an old stove, exhibited with similar pride, by the host of a little inn on a remote Swiss road -- a wonderful stone stove, with the date 1700 cut into it, and a history as interesting as would be the experiment (for the uninitiated) of lighting a fire there. A stove, that, to burn compromising papers, to destroy blood-stained garments and traces of crime, while the storm thundered without, as it did that day. The Dutch stoves, no doubt infinitely better fitted for combustion and real destruction of such things, or any other, make no such suggestions. They suggest, besides the pride of housewives and the pains of maid-servants, merely the useful heating apparatus of a comfortable home, where, when the short days draw in and the lamp is lighted, the family sit about the table and read and work -- do crochet work and study the foreign classics. Or perhaps examine pollen and plant parasites with a microscope; or play very sweetly on the piano, which not infrequently is adorned with a blue or crimson worked cover.
There is not much to be done in the bulb gardens in the winter, at all events during the frosts. The land is put to bed, most of the bulb fields are covered with straw or reeds, only those containing the hardiest sorts, such as Scilla sibirica, Winter aconite, and a few others, are left bare. This covering, which is of varying thickness to suit the bulbs below, is not moved till the frost breaks and the milder weather sets in. But when this happens there is a good deal to do, for it has to be shifted in accordance with the rise and fall of the thermometer: partially removed if the weather keeps mild, else the bulbs would develop too fast in the warmth underneath; replaced for cold nights, or if sharp frost is likely. In early spring great attention has to be given to this, for with sunny mid-days, sharp night frosts, periods of prolonged soaking rain and sudden nipping winds, there is much trouble in suitably protecting and not over-covering the bulbs.
In England the flowering of the crocus is looked upon with a certain amount of joy. It is not, like the first snowdrop, the solitary blooming of some brave single flower, which gives hope that the winter may be going, but the sudden bursting into bloom of hundreds, which declare that the sun has power again. A ribbon of yellow on the grass, battalions of compact mauve figures on the slope, whole armies, violet and white and gold, delicately fragrant, alive with humming bees, definitely proclaiming the doom of winter. If this is so in England, in Holland the flowering of the crocus means more still; every flower represents a separate young crocus, a sound saleable corm, if the grower knows his business and the ground is good. The bulbs, blooming in hundreds, stand for a harvest underground, the census of which might be taken from above, had one time and patience to count the flowers, for at the base of each flower-shoot that the parent bulb throws up a little young bulb will be found when the roots are lifted at the end of June. So a field of flowering crocuses is more than a thing of delicate beauty, and more than a sign that winter is over and past, and the time of the return of the storks is at hand, it stands for so many fawn-coloured bulbs -- a marketable commodity, and each in itself a mystery of re-creation and increase.
Crocuses are not much grown in the immediate vicinity of Haarlem, the land there is too valuable to be devoted to the inexpensive bulb. Many thousands come from Hille, some small growers there make a speciality of them, and grow little else; it is they who supply the big men who supply the markets. There would seem to be about eighty-three sorts of crocus now, which is something of an increase on the six sorts which "Robinio of Paris, that painful and curious searcher after simples," sent to Gerard. By Parkinson's time there appear to have been thirty-one sorts known; but they had begun to cultivate bulbs in earnest in his day, and to them it would have been more a matter of interest than surprise to see our varieties, all of which, on the authority of the grower, it is said, "have been derived from (grown from seed of) the original Crocus vernus of South and Central Europe." When this crocus was first introduced into Holland it is not easy to say. Nor is it easy to discover "when" (in the words of the same grower) "cultivators and amateurs began to hybridise the different forms " -- nor yet when there first were different forms of it to hybridise; certainly it happened very long ago. There is a tradition that the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) was introduced into England in 1339. Hakluyt speaks of its being brought by a pilgrim who, appreciating the sovereign value of the plant, and "proposing to do good to his country," carried home a root hidden in his staff, which had been made hollow "of purpose,'' though whether for the purpose of carrying saffron or anything else of value or interest he could pick up, is not dear. In either ease the proceeding is rather typically English, as also are Hakluyt's further remarks on saffron growing. He regrets that it has become a failing industry in these days, when many sturdy fellows are without work, and suggests, even as we suggest the revival of sundry curious things, that it should be revived for the benefit of the unemployed, who then, as now, were a cut-and-come-again problem.
It is interesting to notice that the older writers include all crocuses and colchicums under the name saffron, not meaning, as we do now, only the Crocus sativus. This crocus, and other varieties of autumn-flowering ones, are grown in Holland; the delicate flowers, beautifying some few fields when the rest are, for the most part, bare, give to them almost a look of spurious spring. It was no doubt this spring-like look of the autumn flowers which inspired the legend that they first appeared in fields where Medea spilt some drops of the magic liquor she had prepared to restore Æson to the vigour of youth. No doubt also it was this, and the fact that, reversing the usual order, the seed heads come in the spring, that gave them their old name, "Sonne-before-the-father."
The original crocus of all crocuses is now believed to have been a native of Kashmere, and to have followed the Aryan migration through the temperate globe; brought, no doubt, in the first instance for its saffron, whereof it would seem these remote ancestors of the European race thought as highly as did Hakluyt's pilgrim. In its various wild forms it is found now in Persia and the Levant, in the Alps and the Apennines, in Italy and Greece, and on the lower slopes of the Pyrenees; and it has been so long in these countries that it has come to be reckoned an indigenous flower, and has a place in many old legends. Ovid tells us that Proserpine was picking "graceful crocus and white lilies" when she was carried off. It is he also who tells of the origin of the flower in Greece. A youth named Crocus in love with a nymph Smilax: he, for the impatience of his love, turned into the flower; and she -- for no apparent reason, which seems unfair -- turned into, not the delicate green plant we call by her name, but a yew tree, a somewhat sombre fate for the inamorata of so ephemeral a trifler as Crocus appears.
spite of this tale of impatient love there does not seem to be any
record, as one might have expected, of the use of crocus in the
flavouring of love philtres or charms. The veil of Hymen was
saffron-coloured; the flower, among others, sprang up on the ground
where Zeus and Hera reclined, from sheer astonishment, one might
imagine, at seeing the Olympian pair on good terms. We ourselves have
dedicated it to St. Valentine --
though the time of its flowering probably has to do with that. But among the many strange and unpleasant things which have been used in the flavouring of love philtres saffron does not appear to have had a place.
It has been used for many other things. "The crocus rayed with gold" is among the flowers which crown Sophocles' "mighty goddess." The Greeks also, we know, reckoned it among perfumes. Aristophanes, in The Clouds, has a somewhat unquotable line on the subject. Among the Easterns it was held a choice spice: "Spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes," were the spices that were to flow out from the garden of the Beloved in The Song of Solomon. One old authority held it to be the food of the fairies, and the humans in his day held it in high esteem. But now it is fallen from its high estate, and, though the County Council or some other body might still prosecute a man for selling adulterated saffron, it would be disinterested philanthropy, and bear no resemblance to the burning of offenders at Nuremberg in the fifteenth century for a similar offence. In Persia it is still much used as a condiment; in a less degree in Spain; in Holland one finds it flavouring rice boiled with milk; here in England it lingers still in the saffron cakes of Cornwall, otherwise it plays small part, except as a food-colouring matter. For that it seems to have been in use in Shakespeare's time. The clown, who has so many things to buy for Perdita's shearing feast, ticks it off among the rest: "I must have saffron," he says, "to colour the warden pies." And we, though we have lost the receipt for warden pies, still use saffron to colour our cookery. Especially is this the case in Russia, where the law holds that all food-colouring must be vegetable, -- a singular law, when one comes to think that all the alkaloid poisons are of vegetable origin, and for real nastiness it is hard to beat some of the dyes of Nature's providing.
But it was as a drug that the saffron crocus was most greatly prized among the peoples of middle and western Europe. In the late middle ages it appears to have been much used as an eye-wash, one feels it was fortunate folk did not have to try their eyes then as now. By Gerard's time it was in great favour for many things; he speaks of it as making "the senses more quicke and lively, shaking off heavie and drowsie sleep, and making a man merrie." "It is a herb of the Sun and under the Lion," writes N. Culpeper, student of physic and astrology in 1652. "Let not above 10 grains be given at one time, for if the Sun, which is the fountain of life, may dazzle the eyes and make them blinde, a Cordial being taken in an inordinate quantity may hurt the heart instead of helping it." This view possibly led to crocus standing in an early Victorian Language of Flowers for "excess," or -- in the generous way that one small flower might then be interpreted to mean a whole phrase -- "beware of excess of love." But it is more than as a cordial for the heart that N. Culpeper regards saffron: "It quickens the brain," he says, "for the Sun is exalted in Aries, as well as he hath his house in the Dragon head, it helps the Consumption of the Lungs and difficulty of breathing, it is an excellent thing in epedemcal diseases, as Pestillence, Small Pox, and Measles; it is an excellent expulsive medicine and a notable remedy for the Yellow Jaundice." More than this can hardly be asked of one plant. After it the humble snowdrop is a mere nobody.
The snowdrop may, with justice, be called humble, certainly it has a much better right to the title than the violet. Gerard, by the way, speaks of it as a "bulbous violet," though there seems little resemblance between them, except the ascribed qualities of humility and retirement, which are entirely undeserved in one case. Violets like sunshine, a good position, and fat living, and, though the leaves hide the flowers in some varieties, it is of those that the scent is strongest and most betraying. It is not the fault of the plant if it is suffered to "blush unseen." but snowdrops really do like retirement and poor ground. In Holland they decline entirely to grow in the open in fields or gardens, and they cannot thrive, really cannot live, in manure and all fat soil. All the snowdrop bulbs which are raised in Holland are grown under hedges or in orchards, where the roots of the trees impoverish the ground and take from it what the little bulbs dislike. Mostly they are grown by the smaller growers, who sell them to the big- ones in their immediate neighbourhood. It is possibly this preference for overgrown places and neglected soil which has made snowdrops flourish and increase so in the orchards and overgrown gardens of old monasteries. It has been suggested that it is because they were planted there in such abundance in the old days when they were sacred to the Virgin, and were used to strew her altars on the Feast of the Purification, -- when they, the Fair Maids of February, as they were called, were the only maids who had any right within those walls. But since they flourish equally well in old shrubberies and orchards unconnected with monasteries and monastic history, it looks rather as if soil and situation has a good deal to do with it too.
They have long been grown in Holland. The old Dutch name was Somer Sottekens, though what it means I have not been able to discover. Somer, no doubt, is another form of "Zomer" (summer), though snowdrops no more then than now bloomed nor yet were planted in summer; Sottekens remains, to me at least, a mystery. The first snowdrops came from Germany and Hungary, and the later blooming sort from Constantinople. In Parkinson's day there was no talk of' them being native to England. They had not been in the country long enough to have increased and naturalised themselves, as they have in some districts now. Undisturbed, in both England and Holland they increase rapidly, by offsets, according to the usual bulb habit; if they like the situation, often forming clumps twenty or thirty strong, and continuing to grow in land that has long gone out of cultivation.
In England the flower is not so much admired as it used to be, when it --
received the tribute of much minor verse. Now we principally remember in connection with it that it does not lend itself well to pot culture, and makes no show as a cut flower; hence, seeing its inconspicuousness and the usual state of the weather at the time of blooming, it is of little use as an ornament. And the fact that it either takes so kindly to its surroundings that it becomes almost a weed, or else dislikes them and practically declines to grow at all, is rather against it. But in the days of our grandmothers it was different, then it was essentially the young girl's flower, and so was graced with all the characteristics which were reckoned to adorn "refilled and elegant young females." Of it, "the Winter's timid child," a poetess of those days wrote: --
Conceive the delight of the first "elegant young female" who saw these words inscribed on the pink-tinted pages of her album, probably beneath some two or three dried flowers of the mishandled plant. Well, well, we have changed all that now; the elegant females have gone, though the minor poet is still with us, and no less minor, though possibly less "refined."
Earlier than crocus, as early as snowdrops, comes the winter aconite -- Eranthis hyemalis. It is grown in quantity in Holland, but as the corms are so very small, not more than half an inch in diameter, one does not see large stretches. It is said that as many as a thousand good corms can be raised on two square metres of land, so naturally it is sold cheap. We prize it as one of the earliest flowers of the year, and because it is hardy, and will, if left to itself, grow anywhere, even under deciduous shrubs. But to our forbears it had another and greater importance, for it was reckoned the "counter-poison monkhood," and its roots were considered "effectual, not only against the poison of the poisonful helmet flower and all others of that kind, but also against the poison of all venomous beasts," -- a large and useful characteristic to be possessed by any plant.
One of the most beautiful of the early spring flowers is one practically without history -- the Scilla sibirica. It is comparatively a newcomer in Dutch bulb fields, for it was brought to Europe from Asia Minor, the Happy Land of bulb collectors, somewhere about 1800. As yet there are only three varieties differing from the original and first discovered kind. These are pale blue, white, and pinkish pale blue, all reared from seed, and none, in the opinion of the uninitiated, to compare with the original blue, -- a colour bluer than anything else that grows, except perhaps gentians, and though not so deep and intense, almost more brilliant and striking than they. Coming into flower almost before crocus, growing low and close to the ground, and of this rare and exquisite colour, a field of them in flower against the pearly paleness of the cold landscape is a sight not to be forgotten. In England, though they are admired, they are hardly yet grown so much as one would expect, seeing that they will endure hard treatment and a poor soil, and, if untouched, year after year send their blue flowers through the grass. Immense numbers are grown in Holland, though not round Haarlem, more in the direction of Hillegom, where the land is cheap. The little bulbs increase rapidly, from offsets which grow around the parent. They can also be easily raised from seed, and, contrary to the habit of most bulbs, come to the flowering stage fairly quickly, seed-grown Scillas being of a saleable size in from three to four years after sowing.
It was certainly not this early blooming member of the Scilla family that Reginald Scott had in his mind when, in his Discovery of Witchcraft (1587), he wrote of the countries "where they hang Scilla (which is either a root or in this place garlic) in the roof of the house to keep away witches and spirits." One wonders a little what he meant, for garlic is not a Scilla, and it hardly seems likely he was referring to what Parkinson calls Scilla alba, or the Great Sea Onion of the Mediterranean. Onions proper, and many varieties of the Alliums, have, of course, played some considerable part in the history of witchcraft. The only two cases of witchcraft which came under the personal notice of the present writer were connected with the homely English onion. In the one ease, it was an old man who accused his neighbour of "overlooking the onion bed," with dire results; and in the other, it was an accredited wizard who "named an onion for" his enemy, stuck it full of pins, and hung it to shrivel in the chimney, in order that the enemy might shrivel as the onion did, and within the year die in agony. As it happened, however, it was the wizard who died. On his death-bed he sent for the other, confessed what he had done, and ordered that the shrivelled onion should be given him, possibly with the idea of undoing the spell, which had rebounded on himself. The enemy is alive to this day, and is as great a man as the other was little, and better known for good works than the other was for bad -- wherefrom, obviously, there is a moral.
The Allium family has a long history and many uses, but as ornamental plants they are hardly to be recommended. Some of them are grown in Holland for that purpose, and we read of them in the catalogues -- handsome pale blue, yellow, and white flowers, and a few rarer ones pink, very showy, and for the most part somewhat unsavoury if broken or even slightly bruised. They are the smart members of a homely family, and, as is usually the ease with such, though no doubt very admirable in some ways, not appealing specially to the majority of people. But Alliums blooming, as they do, in May, are hardly early spring flowers, and having by some devious way reached them, the subject had better be quitted.
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