Crocuses were one of Mr Bowles main interests and his book 'A Handbook of Crocus and Colchicum' was the standard reference work on them for many years. Most of his extensive collection was grown in frames in his garden at Myddelton House, where he raised a number of cultivars (cultivated varieties). A lot of these were based on the two closely related species Crocus chrysanthus and C. biflorus. He raised at least 14 with this parentage, naming most of them after birds which were another interest of his. Unfortunately only four of them are known to be still in existence. A number of other cultivars of these two species are also in danger of disappearing and it was with this in mind that our Society decided to develop and maintain a collection of all that could still be found.
The collection was begun in summer 2004. At that time the garden staff at Myddelton House were unable to devote the necessary time and attention to it so it was maintained in a private garden in Cambridgeshire. All stocks are grown in pots in an unheated frame to avoid any risk of mixing. This also makes it easier to keep an eye on the less vigorous ones. Checks are made on the identity of each new stock - a very necessary job as a surprising number turn out to be incorrect or mixed. In spring 2007 NCCPG (now Plant Heritage) accorded the collection full National Collection status. At that time we had 45 fully identified cultivars. By summer 2009 this had risen to 60 and it was becoming increasingly difficult to locate new ones to add to the collection. We felt it was time to extend its scope. Although most of the Crocus cultivars Mr Bowles raised were with Cc. chrysanthus and biflorus, he did produce some others. We applied to extend the collection to cover them as well and Plant Heritage has approved this. The formal scope of the collection is now "Crocus chrysanthus cultivars, Crocus biflorus cultivars and Crocus cultivars raised by E A Bowles". This has added six more cultivars to the collection. In 2014 the collection was moved to Myddelton House garden where it is maintained by members of the E A Bowles of Myddelton House Society.
Even within the chrysanthus/biflorus types there is a suprising amount of variation in timing, colour, shape, size and even perfume. The earliest is 'Uschak Orange' which opens in late January while its leaves are still very short. It is something of a puzzle as all stocks seem to be mixed for intensity of the orange-yellow colour. The majority of cultivars flower between early February and mid March
Snow Bunting' is the only cultivar raised by E A Bowles to be still available commercially. It is a good garden plant and multiplies up well, unlike its sister 'Kittiwake' which increases very slowly and needs pot culture. Also among the older cultivars is 'Warley', with numerous fairly small flowers and a light, primrose-like perfume. 'Sunspot' is newer and very distinctive, being the only one with black stigma lobes. Among the blues the best known is 'Blue Pearl', readily available and an excellent garden plant. 'Zenith' is a deeper, richer colour but smaller, slower to multiply and fussier about where it grows.
Some cultivars in this group show marked differences in colour between the inner and outer perianth segments ("petals"). 'Blue Bird' is basically white with most of the outside of the outer segments purple-blue. 'Advance' is more curious: it is orange-yellow with the same purple colour on the outer segments, looking brownish where the underlying colour shows through. In 'Gipsy Girl' the yellow colour is strongly feathered with purple-brown on the outer segments, while in the very striking pale blue 'Skyline' the feathering is deeper blue.
Among the cultivars based on other Crocus species one of the most striking is C.tommasinianus 'Bobbo'. Mr Bowles said the name was "to remind me of the sharp-eyed boy who was the first to spot it". We also have commercial stocks of two other tommasinianus cultivars but they don't conform fully to the original descriptions. The jury is out on whether they are in fact correct.
click on main image to enlarge
Bowles' Crocus Watercolours held by the Natural History Museum
In addition to Jo's Monthly 'News and Views', we are building an archive of past Newsletters for members, and others, to be able to look back on past achievements and experiences of the wonderful Myddelton House Gardens and the legacy of E A Bowles. Thanks especially to Alan Pettitt for providing much of this material.