Metamorphosis, Crocus and Saffron February 19th

Snowdrop, Crocus, violet and Silver Birch circle in Haggerston Park. (Photo Kevin Flude, 2022)

Violets and crocuses are coming out. Apparently, in the UK 63% say crocuses and 37% use the correct Latin plural which is croci. And last year I used the incorrect crocii. Incidently, an earth shaking decision has been made at the Financial Times who have just updated their style guide to make the plural word data (datum is the singular form) take the singular form. So it is no longer ‘data are’ but ‘data is’. For example, it was ‘the data are showing us that most British speakers use crocuses as the plural’ but now ‘the data is showing us that 37% of British people prefer the correct Latin form of croci’. In 2018 they changed it to an option, but now it is mandatory to make data singular.

The crocus represents many things but because they often come out for St Valentine’s Day they are associated with Love ‘White croci usually represented truth, innocence and purity. The purple variety imply success, pride and dignity. The yellow type is joy.’ according to www.icysedgwick.com/, which gives a fairly comprehensive look at the Crocus.

Ovid tells the story of Crocus and Smilax in the Metamorphoses. This poem is one of the most famous in the world, written in about 6 AD it influenced Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Bernard Shaw and was translated anew by Seamus Hughes.

The mechanicals in ‘The Midsummers Night Dream’ perform Ovid’s story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Titian painted ‘Diana and Actaeon’. Shaw wrote about Pygmalion, and we all know the story of Arachne, claiming to be better than Athene at weaving and then being turned into a spider.

The stories are all about metamorphosis, mostly changes happening because of love. But it is also an epic as it tells the classical story of the universe from creation to Julius Caesar. It is about love, beauty, change and is largely an arcadian/rural poem in contrast to Ovid’s ‘Art of Love’ which I have long used for illustrations of life in a Roman town.

He tells us ‘Crocus and his beloved Smilax were changed into tiny flowers.’ But he chooses to pass by this and other stories. So we have to look elsewhere for more details. There are various version. In the first Crocus is a handsome mortal youth, beloved of the God Hermes. They are playing with a discus which hits Crocus on the head and kills him. Hermes, distraught, turns the youth into a beautiful flower, and three drops of his blood form the stigma of the flower.  In other versions, love hits Crocus and the nymph Smilax, and they are rewarded by immortality as a flower. In one version, Smilax is turned into the Bindweed, which perhaps suggests that she is either punished for spurning him, or that she smothered him with love.

Photo Mohammad Amiri from unsplash. Notice the crimson stigma and styles, called threads

The autumn-flowering perennial plant Crocus sativus, is the one whose stigma gives us saffron. This was spread across Europe by the Romans, and was used for medicine, as a dye, a perfume. It was much sought after as a protection against the plague. It was extensively grown in the UK and Saffron Walden was a particularly important production area in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

It was grown in the Bishop of Ely’s beautiful Gardens in the area remembered by Saffron Hill (home to the fictional Scrooge). This area became the London Home of Christopher Hatton, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1. It is on the west bank of the River Fleet, in London EC1, in the area now know as Hatton Garden. The placename Croydon (on the outskirts of London), means crocus valley.

The Saffron crops in Britain failed eventually because of the cost of harvesting, and it became cheaper to import it. It is now grown in Spain, Iran and India amongst other places. But attempts over the last 5 years have been made to reintroduce it, This is happening in Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Sussex – the hot and dry counties. It likes a South facing aspect, and needs to be protected from Squirrels and Sparrows who love it. (Source of information BBC Radio 4 Gardeners’ Question Time.)

Saffron Photo by Vera De on Unsplash
Morning Glory or Field Bindweed photo Leslie Saunders unsplash

Bindweed is from the Convolvulus family, and I have grown one very successfully in a pot for many years. But they have long roots and according to the RHS ‘Bindweed‘ refers to two similar trumpet-flowered weeds, both of which twine around other plant stems, smothering them in the process. They are not easy to remove.’ Medically, Mrs Grieve’s Modern Herbal says all the bindweeds have strong purgative virtues.

Viola odorata CC BY-SA 2.5 Wikipedia

Violets have been used as cosmetics by the Celts, to moderate anger by the Athenians, for insomnia and loved because of their beauty and fragrant. They have been symbols of death for the young, and used as garlands, nosegays posies which Gerard says are ‘delightful’.

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