The princess and the milkmaid Posted on February 17, 2014

Just home from the afternoon at Kew, to see the beautifully staged orchid show. Where do they hide these magical creatures the rest of the time? Marshalling such feats of cultivation to dramatize their story is a brilliant idea: crowd-pulling, absorbing….. a triumph. Even without the orchids, though, it would have been with the journey to see the seas of humble crocuses jostling in the wind.

The little ‘Tommy’, Crocus tommasimianus, beats the snowdrop in charm, simplicity – and in coming first. This year, in fact, even before the snowdrops have woven their carpet. I’m not sure how, or even why, its varieties (Whitewell Purple, Barr’s Purple…) are distinguished. Infinite nuances of colour are the attraction of the crowd.

Are the individuals different, and does it matter, when the tops and bottoms of their petals, darker and lighter, mauve and silver, are rippling semaphores across the grass?

Even better, though, is their performance as pampered prima donnas indoors, in warmth and light, where they grow to double height and spread-eagle their petals to flout their sex. I grow them in old clay thumb-pots and put them in the centre of the dinner table among the candles. They tilt and topple, gaping wide, purple, mauve and white with stamens golden in the candlelight. They last three days like this, but for this time they outshine (forgive me, orchids) any other midwinter flower.

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