Chorley is fortunate in possessing several sites where the Autumn Crocus (Crocus nudiflorus) flourishes. It gets its name 'nudiflorus' from the fact that its purple to paler lilac-purple flowers are produced in September and October before any leaves appear. The leaves only grow in the spring and summer before disappearing. The plant is to be found in meadows and other permanent grassland, such as road verges, and is not easy to be seen as the leaves are very much like the surrounding grass. An eagle eye can spot this Crocus's leaves as they have two parallel pale strips on either side of the main vein of the leaf. Nevertheless, difficulty in spotting the plant outside its brief flowering period means it is possibly under-recorded in the British Flora.
To confuse the issue somewhat, there is another plant species commonly called 'Autumn Crocus'. This is Colchicum autumnale, also known as the Meadow Saffron or Naked Ladies. It too flowers in the autumn without any leaves, which again appear in the spring. The Colchicum is a true native but belongs to the family Liliaceae and can be distinguished by the fact that it has six stamens in the flower. The Chorley Autumn Crocus, like all crocus species, is a member of the Iridaceae family, and hence related to the familiar Iris and Gladiolus, and can be distinguished by having three stamens in its flower.
The Autumn Crocus is not a true native to Britain. Its home is to be found in both the French and Spanish Pyrenees. It was introduced long ago, probably at the time of the Crusades, and grown as a source of saffron. Crump and Sledge (1950) suggested that the recorded localities of the Autumn Crocus in Britain are linked to houses which long ago belonged to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, the Knights Hospitallers. However, their work is based on surveys done in Yorkshire, around Halifax, and I am not aware that any of the localities in Chorley have any ancient connection with the Knights of St John: it is certainly true that the Autumn Crocus in Chorley does grow close to old-established farms. If any reader can connect any Chorley house with the Knights of St John, I should be grateful if they would let me know. The existing farmhouses are all stone or brick structures, post 1600 in date, and therefore much younger than the last recorded presence of the Knights of St John in Britain. They may well be the site of much older timber farmhouses, but Lancashire in the 17th century was relatively prosperous and many timber framed houses were replaced with more substantial stone or brick houses. I suspect the Autumn Crocus was grown in many late medieval household gardens for the benefit of housewives anxious to colour and flavour the dishes produced in their kitchens.
The true Saffron Crocus is Crocus sativus but there is no significant difference between the stigmas of the genuine saffron and those of the Autumn Crocus - both are excellent food colourants. However, the Autumn Crocus is hardier and persistent whereas the Saffron Crocus, which many centuries ago was grown commercially around the town of Saffron Walden, does need replanting every few years. In Spain, where it is still grown commercially to this day, the practice is to replant every four years.
The Autumn Crocus, like all crocus, produces a true corm - a compact swollen underground stem rich in starch. All corms are produced new each year from the food formed by the leaves, and, as they are stem structures, have embryo buds. In our Autumn Crocus some of the lower lateral buds produce stolons, which give rise to young corms at their tips. It is this habit of producing underground stolons, unusual but not unknown in other crocus species, that enables the Autumn Crocus to spread and make large clumps in suitable habitats such as damp permanent grassland.
Whilst the Autumn Crocus is not exceedingly rare, it is not common either. It was undoubtedly introduced to British kitchen gardens well before 1600, but it does not appear recorded as a wild plant in Britain in any written record before 1738. The first mention of any sort of our Autumn Crocus was by Clusius, who discovered what he thought was it in Portugal, and described and illustrated it in his Rariorun aliquot Stirpium per Hispanias Observatorum Historia of 1576, and gave it the name Crocum montanum. However, it appears Clusius had confused and lumped together under one name two quite distinct species - our Crocus nudiflorus and C. clusii. It was not until Clusius published his Historia plantarum in 1601 that he realised his mistake and separated the two under the names Crocum montanum I and Crocum montanum II. The English Botanist Parkinson wrote about it in his Paradisus terrestris of 1629, giving it the name Crocus Pyrenaeus purpureus, but appeared unaware of its presence in Britain. Its main distribution in Britain is from Nottinghamshire, where it was first described and given its current scientific binomial name in 1798 by J.E. Smith in his book English Botany, through Staffordshire and Shropshire, north to Lancashire and Yorkshire.
As the distribution map in the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora - published last year by Oxford University Press - shows, there are scattered records of the Autumn Crocus from Cornwall through to Scotland and even in the Isle of Man, but none in Ireland. Many of these are undoubtedly relatively recent escapes from gardens, and the Atlas records 59 records in 10 kilometre squares between 1987 and 1999, but only 32 before 1970. To put this distribution in context, a total of 2,837 10 kilometre squares have been mapped for the Atlas, so currently the Autumn Crocus appears in only 2.08% of all squares. This is scarce, but not in the really rare category because there are several species only recorded from a single 10 kilometre square! The map reproduced from the New Atlas gives the distribution by showing in dark squares the 59 10 kilometre squares with records for the period 1987 - 1999; in lighter squares the 20 squares recorded between 1970 - 1986; and in the palest squares the 32 squares recorded before 1970. These indicate a slight increase in the distribution of the Autumn Crocus in recent years, but whether this is a natural increase of plants, the finding of previously overlooked colonies or the establishment of recent escapes from gardens, it is not possible to say.
I hope that the Autumn Crocus will continue to persist in Chorley, but its hold is not strong, and the small number of sites in the Borough are always under threat, whether it is from road widening schemes, housing development or simply the ploughing up of permanent meadows by farmers anxious to improve their fields.