The perennial Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale), one of around a hundred species in the genus Colchicum, is is one of the most widespread species in the genus and the only one found as far north as northern Europe and Great Britain. Its distribution is limited to Europe, but within Europe it is very broadly (although not continuously) distributed. Autumn Crocuses are generally found in periodically wet to moderately moist grassland, but occur also in alluvial forests (i.e., forests associated with floodplains).
The flowers and leaves of the Autumn Crocus appear at different times. Flowers appear in the fall and may be present into the winter; leaves appear in the spring and may be present into mid-summer.
Autumn Crocus is perhaps best known as the source of the highly toxic alkaloid colchicine (colchicine has some limited medical applications, but must be used with great care). Although livestock generally avoid this plant, occasional poisoning occurs in cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, sometimes leading to death. Colchicine has also long been used by plant breeders to generate mutations, a few of which may result in desirable traits, notably polyploidy. The late flowering time and attractive flowers make the Autumn Crocus a popular ornamental plant.
Jung et al. (2011) provide a thorough review of the biology of the Autumn Crocus, including its taxonomy, morphology, geographic and ecological distribution, reproductive biology, ecology, and physiology.
The Autumn Crocus is not threatened in the central portion of its distribution, although it is a species of concern in some countries at the periphery of its range.
(Finkelstein et al. 2010; Jung et al. 2011 and references therein; Smith and Waldren 2011)
- Finkelstein,Y., S.E. Aks, J.R. Hutson, D.N. Juurlink, P. Nguyen, G. Dubnov-Raz, U. Pollak, G. Koren, and Y. Bentur. 2010. Colchicine poisoning: the dark side of an ancient drug. Clinical Toxicology 48(5): 407-414.
- Junga, L.S., S. Winterb, R.L. Ecksteina, M. Kriechbaumb, G. Karrerc, E. Welkd, M. Elsässere, T.W. Donatha, and A. Ottea. 2011. Colchicum autumnale L. Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 13: 227-244.
- Smith, R.J. and S. Waldren. 2010. Patterns of genetic variation in Colchicum autumnale L. and its conservation status in Ireland: a broader perspective on local plant conservation. Conservation Genetics 11:1351-1361.
Localities documented in Tropicos sources
United States (North America)
Note: This information is based on publications available through Tropicos and may not represent the entire distribution. Tropicos does not categorize distributions as native or non-native.
- Anonymous. 1986. List-Based Rec., Soil Conserv. Serv., U.S.D.A. Database of the U.S.D.A., Beltsville. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/1103
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Foodplant / parasite
linear sorus of Urocystis colchici parasitises live leaf of Colchicum vernum
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Colchicum autumnale
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Colchicum autumnale
Public Records: 7
Specimens with Barcodes: 8
Species With Barcodes: 1
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NNA - Not Applicable
Colchicum autumnale, commonly known as autumn crocus, meadow saffron or naked lady, is a flower that resembles the true crocuses, but blooms in autumn. (This is not a reliable distinction, however, since many true crocuses flower in autumn.) The name "naked lady" comes from the fact that the flowers emerge from the ground long after the leaves have died back.
The species is commonly cultivated in temperate areas.
Colchicum autumnale is the only species of its genus native to the United Kingdom, with notable populations under the stewardship of the County Wildlife Trusts.
The bulb-like corms of Colchicum autumnale contain colchicine, a useful drug with a narrow therapeutic index. Colchicine is approved by the US FDA for the treatment of gout and familial Mediterranean fever. Colchicine is also used in plant breeding to produce polyploid strains. A synthetic chemical compound, called ICT2588, which is similar to one from the autumn crocus, is in the early stages of drug development for the treatment of some types of cancer. In experimental testing it was successfully used to treat breast, bowel, lung and prostate cancers in mice when used in combination with the drug doxorubicin.
Colchicum plants have been mistaken by foragers for ramsons, which they vaguely resemble, but are deadly poisonous due to their colchicine content. The symptoms of colchicine poisoning resemble those of arsenic, and no antidote is known.
Danger of extinction
The Botanic Gardens Conservation International representing botanic gardens in 120 countries has warned that "400 medicinal plants are at risk of extinction, from over-collection and deforestation, threatening the discovery of future cures for disease", including Colchicum autumnale.
Colchicum autumnale by Auguste Faguet
Detail of flower at the United States Botanic Gardens
Colchicum autumnale Limana, (Valmorel), Italy
- Battison, Leila (2011-09-12). "BBC News - British flowers are the source of a new cancer drug". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2011-11-30.
- Atkinson, Jennifer M.; Falconer, Robert A.; Edwards, Dylan R.; Pennington, Caroline J.; Siller, Catherine S.; Shnyder, Steven D.; Bibby, Michael C.; Patterson, Laurence H. et al. (2010). "Development of a Novel Tumor-Targeted Vascular Disrupting Agent Activated by Membrane-Type Matrix Metalloproteinases". Cancer Research 70 (17): 6902–12. doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-10-1440. PMC 2933508. PMID 20663911.
- "Medicinal plants 'facing threat'". BBC News. 2008-01-19.
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