Meadow Saffron: Killer Cure?

Close-up of Meadow Saffron, Colchicum autumnale © Karen Andrews

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.

Mistaken Identity

Public domain botanical illustration of Colchicum autumnale, Meadow Saffron. Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany
Public Domain Botanical Illustration of Colchicum autumnale, Meadow Saffron. Source: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

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).

Livestock Risk

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.

Nibbled Meadow Saffron, Colchicum autumnale.
A Meadow Saffron, Colchicum autumnale, flower partially nibbled by livestock. © Karen Andrews

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

Looking down on 3 Meadow Saffron flowers, Colchicum autumnale, hidden amid grass
Three Meadow Saffron flowers mingle with the grass © Karen Andrews

© Karen Andrews

References and Further Reading

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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