One of our contributors, Christine Hodgetts, was moved to write this interesting article about the Autumn Crocus, in response to Mark Smith’s original article, A Splash of Autumn Colour.
The autumn crocus on the Lammas Field (part of the racecourse) is actually the true autumn crocus, (Crocus nudiflorus), not the colchicum, or meadow saffron (naked ladies). The autumn crocus is found wild in the Mediterranean and in England often on land managed for hay, as in Warwick. The hay was cut at Lammas, (13th August) and the field opened for the commoners’ cattle. If the Warwick examples had been colchicum, the newly opened flowers would have had to be sought out every morning to remove them.
The available evidence suggests that Crocus nudiflorus was introduced into England as a cheaper substitute for saffron (C. sativus). As such it may have been used in dyeing, colouring, and flavouring food and to provide medicinal treatment of marsh fever (malaria) amongst other conditions. There are often monastic associations with the places in which it is growing. It was recorded here and on Pigwells in WG Perry, A botanist’s guide through the county of Warwick (1817). A computer mapped flora: a study of the county of Warwickshire by DA Cadbvury (1971) also records that
it is also found in Priory Park (within the area which would have been part of the monastic precinct).
The area in the Middle Ages
On the Common, the place where the crocus now survives may have belonged in the Middle Ages to the College of St Mary, but would have been tenanted. There is actually documentary evidence for the growing of saffron in Warwick in the 15th century, though not immediately attributable to the Common. Production was undertaken by several of the ordinary townspeople in this part of the town, as is revealed by the payment of tithes on the crop in 1466 and 1473 (Dorothy Styles, Ministers’ Accounts of the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick, 1432-85, Dugdale Society, XXVI (1969))
There are nice discussions of the autumn crocus and the colchicum in Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica (1996) pp401, 435-7.