Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Meadow Saffron

A perennial herb producing pink flowers in the autumn and leaves in the spring (hence the various ‘naked’ names given to it), meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale) grows in damp grassy places, especially around the Severn Estuary, but as it is cultivated as an ornamental it can be found naturalised in other areas.

006Local names include: daggers in Somerset, dainty maidens, fog-crocus in north Yorkshire, go-to-sleep-at-noon in Somerset, kite’s legs in Kent, meadow crocus in Yorkshire, Michaelmas crocus in Wiltshire, naked boys in Herefordshire, Norfolk, Somerset, Wiltshire and Co. Cavan, naked jacks,naked ladies, naked maidens and naked men in Dorset, naked nanny, naked virgins in Cheshire, nakey boys, pop-ups in Somerset, purple crocus in Yorkshire, saffron in Shropshire, snake-flower in Somerset, son-before-father, star-naked boys in Norfolk, and strip-Jack-naked in Devon [1].
Allen and Hatfield note that the fact that ‘Colchicum autumnale is poisonous even after being boiled would imply that, if indeed it did have a place the folk [medicine] repertory, it must have been used only with great discretion'[2]. However meadow saffron was valued in official medicine. Early in the Second World War, in January 1940, it was found that the nation’s supply of the drug colchicine, derived from meadow saffron and used for relieving the pain and reducing the inflammation of gout, was running low. Before the War supplies had come from Germany and to a lesser extent Gloucestershire and Hampshire. Consequently the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, using volunteers including boy scouts, organised the collection of meadow saffron. Collectors were paid seven shillings and six pence per pound for its seeds or dried corms. All consignments had to consist of at least 28 pounds, representing at least 75 pounds of fresh corms. As all parts of the plant are poisonous to cattle farmers were delighted when its seed capsules were collected and corms removed. However there was some concern about the depletion of wild populations, so part of the grounds of Kew Gardens was sown with corms supplied by the Boy Scouts Association, and the resulting seeds sold [3].

1. For further information see the Local Names page on this website.
2. D.E. Allen & G. Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, 2004: 326.
3. L. Hastings & H.Prendergast, Naked ladies and the hunt for health, MAFF Bulletin, January 1995: 6-7.

Images: main, H.E. Baillon et al., Dictionnaire de botanique, vol. 3, 1891; inset, herbarium specimen collected by James W. White, 20 April 1926, Brockley Combe, near Nailsea, Somerset, South London Botanical Institute.

Updated 25 October 2015.