These autumn crocus in the photo were blooming some years ago at Oats Royd Nature Reserve, on the banks of the Strines Beck, Holmfield. Yesterday we found just three blooms higher up the beck at the large sycamore with a huge hole through its trunk. There have been up to 400 near the tree in recent years.
The main time of their flowering is usually mid-September to mid-October. It has been a very unusual summer, though, and a cold spring when the leaves would have been above ground.
There were also none showing in St John’s churchyard, Bradshaw, where a few exist along the eastern boundary wall.
This area is documented as being at one time probably the richest area in Calderdale for the flower. Even in the memory of some of our senior members there were sheets of them in the fields in the background of the picture. No longer.
The literature says that the crocus-strewn hay meadows, field after field, once stretched for one or two miles, presumabely from the Ovenden Hall area, where there is evidence they once grew, all along Shay Lane, to Holmfield, Bradshaw and Oats Royd.
Their origin and the reason why this non-native plant flourished so well? It is native to the Pyrenees in South West France (I have travelled there to see it); English Kings ruled that part of France in the Middle Ages: the Knights of St. John were the Knights Hospitallers and would have needed supplies of saffron for their healing duties (it was considered a cure-all, as well as being a valuable dye); this same order of knights owned much farm land in Yorkshire, including around Holdsworth House, which still bears their insignia on one of the gable ends – a Maltese Cross. There’s St John’s Church – the present building is much more recent – and St. John’s Close, a group of cottages at Bradshaw.
The evidence seems to point to the crocus being introduced to produce saffron. It would have grown well under the hay-making sytem. The fields are manured in winter. The crocus leaves come up with the grass in spring, but are not grazed or cut until haymaking time, when they have already shrivelled, in May, having completed the spring cycle when they gather energy. Then the aftermath or regrowth of grass in autumn was often closed off to animals for a source of winter grazing, and the purple blooms appear in this.
None of the 32 sites we have discovered or rediscovered in Calderdale (some of them tiny even when we recorded them) are now on land under the traditional haymaking system. We do have some sizeable colonies though, none more remarkable than a long swathe of them in a field at Cold Edge, Wainstalls, opposite the building that once was the Withens pub.
If anybody notices any of the blooms anywhere, please let us know here. If you are not enrolled, you can email to the address above or use the mobile number above.
My booklet with further reading and photos “The Mystery of the Autumn Crocus” is available priced £6.00 inc postage, all proceeds to the Halifax Scientific Society.