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The Meadow Saffron {Autumn crocus} { Past and present medicinal uses}

Updated on August 2, 2015

Meadow saffron

geograph | Source


The meadow saffron,belongs to the order of plants known as the Liliales {Lily} and the Family Colchicaceae. It is given the genus name of Colchium and is the only one of its genus to occur in the UK.

It must not be mistaken for the Saffron, Crocus sativa of the family Iridacea,which is a very expensive herb which can bring upwards of 500 dollars per pound,and is used as an anti-depressant.

The Colchium is native to southern and most central European countries. During the 1800's in the UK it was recorded from moist rich meadows in many southern counties. Miller, remarks, " I have observed it in great plenty in the meadows of Warwickshire,at the beginning of September. The country people call the flowers 'Naked Ladies', because they come up naked without any leaves or cover"

The flowers appear in September and October before the leaves and fruit which are not produced until the following spring. The generic name of Colchium is thought to derive from {An ancient country situated along the eastern tip of the black sea, in Natolia {Asia Minor} which abounded in this species and other poisonous vegetables. Perhaps this gave rise to some poetical fictions respecting the Enchantress Medea, who was often called Colchis,from the place of her birth.

In this article we look at the species ,its past and present medicinal uses,along with historical observations from past herbalists and other eminent writers. As always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Colchium autumnale Components


Description of the Meadow saffron

The Corm {solid bulb} is fleshy,lactescent and covered with a brown membranous coat,and furnished at the base with many small fibrous roots.

The leaves spring immediately from the corm.They are long and erect,broadly lance-shaped ,acute ,entire and of a dark green colour,sheathing at the base,and united three or four together.

The flowers proceed from the corm and are surrounded at the base by a membranous sheath. They appear in autumn,anterior to the leaves which are not developed until spring.The perianthe {calyx} is simple,petaloide {like petals} and of a light roseate purple colour,with a long narrow tube,arising immediately from the corm..They possess a six parted limb,whose segments are oblong,ovate,obtuse,erect and concave. There are six stamens with white subulate filaments,inserted on the segments of the calyx.The anthers are oblong,versatile,yellow and turned outwards.

The fruit is a sub-sessile capsule,with three cells and three straight lobes,somewhat acute at the summit,connected at the lower part and opening longitudinally on their inner face. The seeds are small,smooth and rounded,with a membranous teste and a dense fleshy albumen.

Seeds of Colchium


General and historical information

On account of the length of the flower tube,the plant went by the name of tube-root in some parts of England. It was generally believed that the Colchium autumnale was the Hermodactylon of the Ancients. This bulb was described about the size of a small chestnut,flattened on one side ,yellowish externally,white within,sub-viscid,farinaceous and without odour.

It was brought from Natolia and Egypt through Turkey. Linnaeus { Mat.Med.ed Schreber,p44} on the authority of Bauhin,mentions it as the root of the Iris tuberosa adding " The plant from which it is obtained is unknown-Tournefort and many others considered it as a species of Iris, while some took for the Colchium variegatum"

The description given by Alexander of Tralles { Libr.Med.xi edAndernaci } as to its medicinal effects corresponds very nearly with the character of Colchium. he recommended it with other purgatives to treat gout,untied with aromatics. Paulus Aegineta, extols it it as a specific in the same disease,as does Avicenna,who also recommended it to be applied to the part affected in the form of a cataplasm.

Fascinating life cycle of the meadow saffron-----

The economy of this plant was regarded as being worthy of special note. In the Coltsfoot the flowers are produced in early spring,and the leaves follow in the summer.In the case of the Meadow Saffron the flowers appear at the end of September,and in a short time perish without leaving any visible signs of the leaves or fruits.

The germen or ovary which was impregnated in Autumn gradually develops underground and finds a safe hibernation place in the bulb.In the spring the fruit rises on a short stalk together with the leaves,which perish before the end of June,when the seeds are ripe. In the meantime a new bulb has sprung from the side of the old one,and when this has perished,is ready to fulfil its destined office by providing the flower and nourishment of the germ of a succeeding plant. There are,in fact, two germs from the same bulb,one lower,just described,producing the flower and seed and another situated above,also furnished with a stem,but seldom bears flowers.

Close up of the flower

US botanical gardens
US botanical gardens | Source

Poisonous properties of the Meadow saffron

Records show that there can be no doubt of the deleterious and sometimes fatal effects of the Meadow saffron upon animals,but contradictory statements are to be found on this point,depending on the author. Some affirming that horses eat the flowers of the plant with impunity,while others declared that horses never ate it, " even though it is ever so plentiful"

It was said that cattle never ate the plant that grew in meadows, but when dried and mixed with hay,it has produced fatal consequences. " Fallow deer,after eating it in their forage,have been seized with extreme pain and a copious flux of blood, and after death the stomach and intestines exhibited evident traces of inflammation and gangrene " { Bresl.Sam.1720 } Scopoli {Flora Carn.ed.1 page 229} mentions that a cat died from eating the flowers.

To the human body Colchium is very poisonous.Several children have lost their lives in consequence of having eaten the seeds during the spring when the seed vessel is fully matured according to Orfilia's Toxicology. Again respecting the bulb different authors have given contradictory accounts. Haller {History.Stirp Helv.n 1256}, found the bulb perfectly void of taste and acrimony.

Kratochvill, { Kratochvill Diss,de radice Colchici Franc ad Moen 1723}, gave it with impunity to several patients,in doss of two,three,and even four drachms. Storck, on the other hand informs us,that by gently rubbing the root against the tip of his tongue it rendered the part rigid and almost void of sensation for several hours. Murray { Murray.Appar. Med.Vol V page 196}, and several other writers also bear testimony to the great acrimony of the Colchium.

To try and remedy the deleterious affects of the powerful plant it was recommended by Physicians to ' immediately evacuate the stomach by copious draughts of oily and mucilaginous liquids and to give emollient clysters to sooth the rectum. After having excited vomiting very freely administer acidulous fluids ,coffee, and camphor. if necessary,bleeding must be resorted to'

Group of meadow saffron growing on a lawn.

Osnabruck Burgerpark
Osnabruck Burgerpark | Source

Meadow Saffron past medicinal history with notes and observations from past herbalists,and other eminent writers.

Prosper Alpinus { Med.Egypt. page 234-253} states that the Egyptian Women fatten themselves with the Hermodachyl { meadow saffron} root that are sold in shops,eaten everyday for a fortnight or three weeks,without experiencing any effect on the stomach or bowels,or any inconvenience, and the true Colchium of which we are speaking,varies greatly in its qualities.

Krapf { In Storck Contin experim page 233} asserts that in Carniola, towards the end of autumn,he has eaten the whole bulbs and experienced no disagreeable effect,except an ungrateful bitterness. Conversely, it was affirmed by various other writers to be very acrimonious and dangerous in its effects.

It would seem that these mentioned discrepancies were attributed almost entirely to the time of year at which the bulbs {corms} were dug up. Climate and soil also seem to have had their share of influence. " And even when its baneful principle is most fully developed, by a very simple process it may be divested of all poisonous properties,and eaten with the greatest safety."

Thus, it was thought that the proper time for taking the bulb is just before it began to develop the flowering organs in July and the beginning of August. At this time it is quite solid and firm,and when cut has a creamy appearance. it must also be remembered that the bulb even when taken up at its 'proper' season, if if preserved entire, is subject to the same process as though it remained underground.

Dr.Thompson recommended that immediately after it has been dug up, to be cut into transverse slices,not thicker than one eighth of an inch,and dried by placing the slices o a clean white blotting paper, distinct from one another, without heat, or at a very low temperature. The test of the drug being properly dried is the appearance of a blue colour on rubbing it with a little distilled vinegar and the alcoholic solution of quaiacum. The slices should be preserved in well stoppered bottles.

The fresh bulb taken in the 'proper' season was considered to be odorous, bitter,hot and acrid to taste,and if a small portion was swallowed ,a sensation of warmth was produced in the stomach. These properties were said to reside in the milky juice which exudes when the bulb is cut transversely and which contains a peculiar alkaloide,called Veratrine. However, more recently in our history Geiger and Hesse { Journal de Parmacie XX page 164} discovered a new alkaloid which they named Colchicia.

The other components were thought to be fatty matter,gallic acid,a yellow colouring matter, gum,starch,sugar,inulin in great abundance and a small quantity of lignin.Wine and vinegar were employed to extract its active qualities.

In the reign of Elizabeth the first, a translation of Wertzung's work { Praxis Medicinae Universalis} appeared, in which a very favourable account of its virtues was given.

Interior of the Apothorcary's shop

The enterprising Storck

It is to the enterprising spirit of Strock that herbalists gained their knowledge of the use of Colchicum as a diuretic virtue,who by experiments with a vinous infusion of the fresh root on his own person,who was fully satisfied, that if its deleterious acrimony was destroyed it might prove an efficacious medicine, accordingly he invented an acetous preparation.

Storcks Vinegar of Colchicum------

Take of a fresh bulb of Colchicum,one ounce. Vinegar one pint. Digest for forty eight hours with a gentle heat,and strain. Finding the article acrid to the taste and that it caused irritation of the fauces,and excited a slight cough,he added honey to it.

Storck's Oxymel of Colchicum----

Take of vinegar of Coclchicum,one ounce. Take of Honey two ounces, and gently boil down to the consistency of honey. This was administered in the doses of a drachm,gradually increased to an ounce or more,twice a day, he found it to promote a copious discharge of urine without it producing any inconvenience from its acrimony. However, in England it was thought to be less efficacious than squill.

Although a highly valuable agent in gout and rheumatism Colchicum must be very cautiously used-" for although it has been taken by many persons with the best effects,acting almost as a charm in setting aside a parixysm of the disease, it will sometimes produce the most distressing and even fatal side affects. As an external application, a few fresh bulbs,sliced and bruised, and mixed with a bread poultice was applied to the 'gouty parts'. this was repeated to or three times in twenty four hours"

The above information is for historical interest only and not meant as a guide to self medication. Colchicum is poisonous and should not be a product of home made preparations.

In bloom


Modern day uses of Colchicum autumnale

Extracts from the plant are used to produce the drug called Colchicine employed in the treatment of joint problems and in particular those of gout,although it is thought by some to be just as good in the treating the symptoms of rheumatism and arthritis.

The powder of the root is prescribed by some modern herbalists to sprinkle on wounds. these can be bought as commercial products. Any one who buys such products are warned not to take more than the stated dose,as it can make you ill and may even be toxic if to much is taken.

It is said that Cochicum can help reduce uncomfortable gas pains of flatulence,particularly if it caused a swelling of the abdomen. It is also taken to sooth the burning of heartburn and in Ulcerated colitis { intestinal ulcers}

This is not a drug for the layman and should only betaken under the guidance of a professional herbalist/physician,along with consultation with your doctor.

If you are trying this herb or any other for the first time take just a little to test your body tolerance.

Drawing of the meadow saffron

Elements of Botanical Science Richard duper 1800's
Elements of Botanical Science Richard duper 1800's

Colchicum and the garden

Colchicum as far as the gardener is concerned are charming plants with crocus like flowers. they are in general born in the autumn and usually large leaves appear in the spring. Although they look like crocuses Colchicum are members of the Lily family not to iris family to which the crocus belongs.

Gardeners are advised to plant bulbs {corms} among low growing ground cover plants or in grass which will help to avoid soil splash,during wet weather. if they are grown and naturalized in grass the leaves must be allowed to die down before the grass is cut. Colchicum are also suitable for rockeries and beneath deciduous trees.

The corms should be planted six to nine inches apart the top two inches below the surface of the ground in July or August. they can be grown from seed in pots filled with a sandy loam and covered by a sandy loam and covered by half an inch of soil. However, it should be noted that it may take three to five years before any flower is produced by plants grown from seeds.

Colchicum speciosum { fro the caucasus} has unusually large, deep lilac flowers during September and a white variety C.speciosum alba are very pretty blooms.

Garden Colchicum



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      VioletteRose ,

      Hi, you are very welcome, thank you for your visit it is appreciated. Best wishes to you.


      hi Deb, many beautiful things are deceivingly deceptive. But their beauty is still worth our admiration. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      It is amazing that such a beautiful flower and plant can be so deadly. The same thing is said about the poisonous frogs of South America, too.

    • VioletteRose profile image


      6 years ago from Atlanta

      They are so pretty flowers, never knew about their uses. Thanks for sharing :)

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Devika, once again I must thank you for your kind and welcomed comments my friend. And also for all your votes,always much appreciated from you. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      A beautiful flower and so fascinating. Voted up, useful beautiful and interesting. I found this hub to be knowledgeable and well-announced facts.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello my friend thank you for your kind comments. Much appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      6 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      very interesting and well done.


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