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Tecophilaea cyanocrocus • Chilean Blue Crocus

Hunger, greed, lust, and extinction—it sounds like Edgar Allan Poe’s lurid tale The Fall of the House of Usher, but in fact it’s the story of the Chilean blue crocus. How did one small plant find itself at the center of such a turbulent drama? Easy—by being both very beautiful and very rare. By any account, the Chilean blue crocus bears some of the most ravishing flowers in the entire plant kingdom: two-inch cups of a blue that out-dazzles the most sapphirine gentian, delphinium, or Himalayan poppy. (For the record, it’s not a crocus, despite its specific epithet; it’s a corm-forming geophyte—a fancy word, meaning literally “earth-plant,” for any plant that suvives seasonal drought or cold by means of underground storage organs such as bulbs, tubers, rhizomes, or corms—that belongs to its own small family, the Tecophilaeaceae.) Native to the grassy slopes of the hills surrounding the city of Santiago, known as the Cordillera de Santiago, at an altitude of about 9,700 feet, it was never common to begin with, and was discovered only in 1862. Less than a hundred years later it was considered extinct in the wild. The culprits were hungry sheep, goats, and cattle, which found it a tasty snack; greedy bulb merchants, who paid the local ranchers to dig it up by the sackful; and, it must be acknowledged, lust-besotted gardeners, who were willing to pay the greedy bulb merchants extravagant sums for the pea-size corms.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end in complete tragedy: in 2001, a small colony was discovered growing on private land. There is also a plan afoot, drafted by the Royal Botanical Society/Kew and Chile’s Corporación Nacional Forestal, to reintroduce the plant into its former range. For the most part, however, it’s up to gardeners to keep this beauty going. It’s not difficult. Because Chilean blue crocus requires a mild, Mediterranean climate—and because the corms are still staggeringly expensive—pot culture is best. A four- or five-inch pot, filled with a mix of two-thirds acidic loam to one-third grit or sharp sand, will easily accommodate a trio of corms, which should be planted two inches deep as soon as you receive them. While the plant is dormant, from late spring through midwinter, keep the corms dry and in a cool but frost-free place. When growth commences in midwinter, bring the pot into full sun and begin regular watering and feeding. A mature, well-grown plant will produce two or even three flowering stems, and when the flowers appear, you will be filled with a rapture that only gardeners get to experience. If you want to amass a complete collection of the species, you can add the cultivars ‘Leichtlinii’, whose perianth segments are white with blue edges, or the deep violet ‘Violacea’, although they hardly surpass the plain form in beauty.

So get cracking. Buy some corms (or give some to your favorite gardener—a more princely gift is hard to imagine). Grow the plant and propagate it. We have a species to save here.

The Essentials

  • Type of plant: tender cormous perennial
  • Family: Tecophilaeaceae (tecophilaea family)
  • Origin: Cordillera de Santiago, Chile; nearly extinct in the wild
  • Height: 4–6 in.
  • Leaves: linear to linear-lanceolate, margins somewhat wavy, medium green, 3–5 in. long
  • Flowers: sweetly scented, with 6 similar perianth segments, bright blue, pale blue and white, or violet, 1 1/2–2 in. across
  • Bloom period: late winter/early spring
  • Hardiness: USDA Zones 9–10
  • Exposure: full sun
  • Soil: fertile, acidic loam with about 1/3 grit added for drainage
  • Water needs: water regularly only while in active growth; dry off during dormancy
  • Planting: pot up as soon as corms arrive; plant corms 2 in. deep
  • Feeding: about 4 times during the growing season with bulb fertilizer
  • Propagation: by cormlets that form around the parent corm or by seed (flowers must be hand-pollinated with a fine paintbrush)
  • Problems: none serious

A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 99, no. 6 (November/December 2002).