Celebrating the crocus

Cambridge residents have stopped in their tracks. Hundreds of photos have been taken. There is pleasure on social media and praise for the gardeners. It’s all down to the crocus, a striking little plant that has been cultivated around the world for 3,500 years.

Crocus tomassinianus on the Backs. Photo: DJ 

Carpets of crocus have unfurled in the early spring sunshine down the Avenue, on the Backs and at Newton’s Lawn beside Great Gate.

The new star of this annual show is the lawn facing Trinity Street where last autumn Trinity’s Gardens Team planted more than 20,000 crocus bulbs – or corms – during the re-turfing. Head Gardener, Tom Hooijenga, said the planning and hard work had paid off. ‘Aren’t they looking lovely! Lots of photographs are being taken at the front of the College – the display is very popular.’

Alumnus and Times Diary columnist, Patrick Kidd, posted on Twitter, ‘Oh, to be in Cambridge now that spring is here.’

Newton’s Lawn. Photo: Sarah Claydon, Deputy Head Gardener

Martin Bond, of ‘A Cambridge Diary’, said:

I think during lockdown people have learnt not just to notice things like this but to appreciate them more and the Trinity crocuses have definitely brought colour and joy to passers-by.

Martin Bond’s picture of the day received more than 1,000 likes on Twitter from followers of ‘A Cambridge Diary.’ Photo: Martin Bond

The purple, white and yellow flowers are a common sight in Cambridge in spring. But did you know that…

Senior Garden, Karen Wells, on ten things about crocuses…or croci

  1. Crocus grow from corms – modified fleshy stem tissue for storing food – as distinct from true bulbs, tubers and rhizomes. The crocus genus is part of the Iridaceae family, along with iris, freesia and gladiolus.
  2. The plural of crocus is crocuses or croci.
  3. The hand-harvested golden stigmas from Crocus sativus (the autumn crocus) cost up to £10 per gram, making saffron the most expensive spice in the world. Each flower bears three stigmas. One ounce of saffron = 4000 stigmas. It takes 150,000 crocus flowers to make one kilo of saffron.
  4. From Ancient Greece (notably Crete and Santorini), Egypt and Rome to the present day the 3,500 years of crocus cultivation has seen saffron used to dye cloth & hair, in medicine, as a fragrance and, of course, as seasoning.
  5. In the 1560s crocus corms were brought to the Netherlands from Constantinople. Some were also sent to Carolus Clusius, who was the forefather of the Dutch tulip industry, in Leiden Botanical Garden. The first garden varieties of crocus had been developed by 1620.
  6. We can’t say categorically that crocuses would have been present in Newton’s Garden – which was situated where the lawn beside Great Gate is today – but they were present in gardens of the time, where the saffron was harvested for seasoning.
  7. RHS Garden Wisley nurtures one of the National Collections of Crocus with over 800 specimens.
  8. Centuries of Crocus sativus cultivation for spice and dyestuff in the surrounding area of the small Essex town led to Chepyng Walden being renamed Saffron Walden in the 1500s.
  9. Spring crocuses in particular are a welcome food source for early pollinators such as bees and hoverflies, one of the best species being Crocus tomassinianus, which is naturalised on the Pieces at Trinity.
  10. Crocus sativusflowers are a good source antioxidant compounds such as flavonols, flavanones, crocins and crocetin.
Bees doing what bees do best. Photo: DJ 

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