I recently came across Meadow Saffron growing wild in a local Nature Reserve’s grassland. Cultivated Autumn Crocus, Colchicum autumnale, is a popular seasonal plant with gardeners. Wild Colchicum autumnale is on the Great Britain Vascular Plant Red List with Near Threatened (NT) status. It is found much less frequently than in the past. Its former grassland habits have been ploughed up. It has been subjected to deliberate eradication as poisonous to livestock.
Medicinal Plant: past and future?
Meadow Saffron has a long history as a medicinal plant. Its curative properties are regarded with suspicion as the dosage is difficult to control. It is best regarded for gout treatment. Its potential as a cancer cure has also been researched – again with some circumspection. It is not unusual for poisonous plants to have medicinal value at low doses. While conservationists worry about lost potential cures in the Amazon, it seems that we have a threatened native plant with curative potential in this country too. Unfortunately, ensuring the survival of a poisonous plant is a tricky endeavour.
Gardening with Care
Gardeners do not seem as wary of the plant as farmers. It adds welcome colour to the autumn garden as summer displays die back. Dauncey’s Poisonous Plants guide lists Colchicum as one of the most toxic garden plants. She notes that there are very few reported cases. Severe poisoning can result if eaten. Even contact can lead to mild poisoning. Colchicum falls under category B of the Horticultural Trades Association coding. This means that it is regarded as safe to buy, as long as warning labels are heeded. Planting away from young children is recommended.
My research revealed that fatal poisoning resulted when a forager mistook Colchicum autumnale leaves for Wild Garlic, Allium ursinum. The roots have also been mistaken for onions in the past.
It is also important to note that, despite its common name, Meadow Saffron does not provide us with Saffron. Instead, this comes from the stigmas and styles of Crocus sativus, the Saffron Crocus.
Mistaken identity may occur because Colchicum presents differently through the seasons. The naked white stems have earned it the nickname of Naked Ladies. The ovary is hidden underground, until it pushes its way above ground as the seeds ripen (See botanical illustration right).
Greatest concern surrounds the risk of ingestion by livestock. I came across a partially nibbled Meadow Saffron flower during my walk. The animal had apparently decided to stop eating the plant of its own accord.
The fear of livestock poisoning via grassland or cut hay has led to a sustained policy of eradication. There is also alarm about the toxicity transferring into milk. All parts of the plant are toxic. Its reported toxicity seems to vary with the seasons. Ancient knowledge and understanding of the plant appear to have been lost down the centuries.
Flora of Somerset mentions such fears have led to Meadow Saffron’s increased rarity. The local Nature Reserve provides a welcome habitat for its survival in the wild. It may be a killer for the unwary, but we may never know what future medical cure it might have provided if completely eradicated. The following Gallery of Images shows what a beautiful autumn flower could be lost.
Gallery of Images
© Karen Andrews
References and Further Reading
- Akram, Muhammad et al. (2012): Colchicum autumnale: A review. February 2012.
- Ashraf, Muhammad Arif (2020): Phytochemicals as Potential Anticancer Drugs: Time to Ponder Nature’s Bounty. BioMed Research International. Special Issue. Volume 2020, Article ID 8602879
- Biological Records Centre (BRC) (?): Colchicum autumnale. Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora.
- Brvar, Miran et al. (2004): Case Report: fatal poisoning with Colchicum autumnale. Critical Care. 2004; 8(1): R56–R59. 2 January 2004
- Cancer Research UK (2011): Crocus “smart bomb” cancer cure? It’s a bit more complicated than that. Science Blog. 12 September 2011
- Dauncey, Elizabeth A. (2010): Poisonous Plants. A guide for parents & childcare providers. Kew.
- Grigson, Geoffrey (1996): The Englishman’s Flora. Helicon. Oxford. (pp. 411-2).
- Hartung, Edward F. (1953): History of the Use of Colchicum and Related Medicaments in Gout with Suggestions for Further Research. Annals of Rheumatic Diseases. BMJ. 22 December 1953.
- Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) (2000): The retailers code of practice for potentially harmful plants. Code of Practice for potentially harmful plants.
- Jones, Keith (2004-20): Meadow Saffron. English Wildflowers. A Seasonal Guide.
- Kupper, Jacqueline et al. (2010): A Fatal Case of Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale) Poisoning in a Heifer: Confirmation by Mass-Spectrometric Colchicine Detection. Sage Journals. 1 January 2010
- Leila, Battison (2011): British flowers are the source of a new cancer drug. BBC News. 12 September 2011.
- RHS (2020): Colchicum autumnale. Meadow Saffron. RHS Gardening.
- Roe, R. G. B. ( 1981): The Flora of Somerset. Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. Taunton, Somerset. (p. 246)
- The Wildflower Garden (2020): Meadow Saffron. Wildflower Garden Plant Selector.
- The Wildlife Trusts (?): Meadow Saffron.
- Twining, Elizabeth (1868): Colchicaceae: The Colchicum Tribe. Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants.
- Vickery, Roy (2015): Meadow Saffron. Plant-Lore. 25 October 2015.
- Winter, Silvia et al. (2013): Control of the toxic plant Colchicum autumnale in semi‐natural grasslands: effects of cutting treatments on demography and diversity. Journal of Applied Ecology. 30 December 2013
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