Meadow saffron

Status Non-native, invasive
Best Time to See
Colour
Habitat Woodland

Also known as 'Autumn crocus' (not to be confused with Crocus nudiflorus a non-native crocus of the same name) and the rather poetic 'naked ladies'.

A late bloomer, meadow saffron can turn a woodland glade a flush of purple-pink come September, when many other wild flowers have past their prime. Since the Second World War, however, it has become a rare find.

Despite appearaces, this wild flower is not related to the saffron used as a spice in coking. In fact, it is not a crocus at all and one shouldn't make the mistake of trying to eat it: as its scientific name suggests, meadow saffron contains the toxic alkaloid colchicine.

Colchicine, however, also has a medicinal use as a treatment for gout. Recent research also suggests it may be an effective treatment for a range of cancers.

Distribution

Populations of meadow saffron were devastated during the Second World War as demand for a home-grown source of colchicine soared. Previously great quantities were imported from abroad, but when blockades cut off supplies our own wild plants were pressed into use. Many populations probably never recovered. Changes in farming methods have also had an impact (see Key threats below).

Habitat

Once frequently found in meadows, meadow saffron is now more likely to be found in open woodland and on commons.

Best time to see

September, when in bloom.

Key threats

Modern agricultural practices have, in part, been responsible for the plant's decline, at least as a flower of the meadows. Previously the plant's toxic leaves appeared in early summer, when livestock were excluded from the hay meadows in which it thrived. As such, there was rarely a risk of them accidently getting poisoned (the flowers appear to be largely ignored or persist for so short a time they pose a lesser threat). Today, silage is the preferred grass storage option. It is cut much earlier than hay meaning the leaves are harvested as well. Fro the farmer's point of view this makes it a very undesirable plant to have around. In consequence

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