#27 Crocus


Photo courtesy of Shilo R. McGiff

Although it looks rather like a miniature lily, the crocus is a member of the iris family, Iridaceae and grows from corms or bulbous tubers: swollen, underground stems (Hogan 435). Crocuses bloom in both spring and fall, but some fall-blooming crocuses are actually Colchicum and belong to the lily family (See AUTUMN CROCUS). The most common crocuses belong to one of three species: C sativus, the fall-blooming saffron crocus originating from Crete and Greece, is the ancient source of the spice also used for dye and medicine; C. vernus is the spring-blooming Dutch variety found in most gardens with colors for most varieties ranging from white to lilac to a dark purple which is almost blue (Hogan 436; Ward 102). Yellow crocuses often belong to C. flavus.

Since saffron is one of the oldest recorded flowers, it has a long history of cultural and literary associations. Crocuses were particularly important to women in Bronze Age Minonan cluture as revealed by decorative motifs on artifacts from Knossos and a series of frescos at Akrotiri. Rachel Dewan points out the gynocologicial nature of many of saffron’s  medicinal uses (48) and documents the woman-centered religious iconography of both the flower and its yellow dye (50 passim). Crocuses are among the flowers mentioned in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter as growing in the field from which Persephone is kidnapped and thus are associated with particularly female modes of resurrection and renewal.[1]

Classical Greek and Roman legends from Homer to Ovid make the crocus more hetero-normative. Lehner and Lehner explain that that “The ancients often used this flower to adorn their marriage beds because according to Homer, the crocus plant was one of the flowers of which the couch of Zeus and Hera was composed” (56). Ovid tells yet another story of ill-fated lovers turned to flowers in the tale of Crocus and Smilax: separated by location -- Crocus lived on the plains and Smilax was a shepherdess living in the hills --  either Crocus died from grief or the two asked Flora to help them, and the gods or Flora turned them into flowers (Folkard 161; Ward 104). In the Catholic church, the crocus is linked with St. Valentine -- patron saint of heterosexuality-- who, just before his martyrdom, supposedly sent a note to a little blind girl containing a crocus which restored her sight (Ward 104).[2] Although Shakespeare doesn’t mention the crocus by that name, he has four references to saffron in his plays, including during the wedding masque in Act IV of The Tempest, where Ceres (a.k.a Demeter) speaks of a fairy with saffron wings diffusing honey onto flowers (Quealy 165).

I have recorded fifty-six crocuses in Woolf’s published writing, making it one of her most frequently mentioned flowers.  The majority of the appearances, twenty-two, are in her life writing. There are twenty-one references in non-fictional prose, thirteen of which occur in a single piece, “The Patron and the Crocus” (1924).  The flowers appear least frequently in her fiction, thirteen times, spread out over seven different novels and short stories. While the crocus begins as a seasonal marker, once Woolf begins to incorporate the flower into her fiction and essays, it begins to accumulate an increasingly complex metaphorical load to include a more charged role as an igniter of imaginative creativity generated by and producing a kind of androgynously erotic excitement. 

Woolf’s most common use of the crocus is in her annual observations of spring flowers. From 1897, when she was fifteen until 1940, the year before her death, crocuses were a constant harbinger of spring in many different gardens-- at 22 Hyde Park Gate, in Kensington and Kew Gardens, and at Asheham and Monk’s House in Sussex -- often coupled with other early spring blossoms such as ALMOND TREES, HYACINTHS, SNOWDROPS, and SQUILL.  Begun in January 1897, Woolf’s first journal marks the seasons by clocking the bloom time of crocuses.  In February 1897 she records that the crocuses in Kensington Gardens are “coming out” (PA 39). Throughout March, there are three more entries chronicling the floral progress of spring in Kensington and Kew Gardens (PA 48, 52, 55). In time, she comes to associate crocuses with rural rustication; Virginia writes her friend Violet Dickinson in April of 1903, asking if she has “settled down to pass [her] remaining days among cows and crocuses” (L1 72-3).

It is not too long, however, before we see Woolf assert a proprietorial pride in her own country crocuses.  In early March 1913, writing to invite Ka Cox to visit Asheham, she boasts, “I don’t believe you’ve seen this place, anyhow not since it was lived in and had something like a garden-- 20 daffodils and ½ a dozen crocuses.  Its far the loveliest place in the world” (L2 20). In early March1920, she celebrates the much more bounteous spring plantings at Monks House, listing everything that is in bloom: “Daffodils all out; garden set with thick golden crocuses; snowdrops almost over; pear trees budding” (D2 21). And in September 1925 -- in the first of several explicit connections between crocuses and Vita --she recounts how Leonard’s jealousy of Vita’s garden at Long Barn has “complicated my relations for life” by intensifying distress over crocuses: “The cook shouts ‘Oh ma'am, a crocus is coming up’. Then ‘A mouse has nibbled the crocus, ma'am!’ I spring up, accuse Leonard; find its a false alarm” (D2 21). 

The time being September, this reference of course refers to AUTUMN CROCUS or Colchicum, but despite her apparent knowledge of the difference between the two flowers, Woolf also associates spring crocuses with Vita.  In January of 1926, anticipating her friend’s return, she writes from London to Vita in Persia “when I saw crocuses in the Sqre yesterday, I thought May: Vita” (L3 232).  Writing to Vita in March of 1933, seven years later, she once again invokes the spring blossoms: “How difficult it is to write, with all the spring birds singing and the garden full of blue and white crocuses”(L5 169).

In the mid-thirties, as Woolf turns her attention back to the natural world as part of her preparations for working on the book which eventually became The Years, she again begins to record her annual spring observations. In March 1935 she announces, “Spring triumphant. Crocuses going over, daffodils & hyacinths out” (D4 292).  In March of 1936, she notes the appearance of crocuses in both London (D5 17) and Monk’s House (D5 20). In February 1938, she describes a “perfect week end” at Monk’s House: “still, brisk spring; crocuses in the garden; birds rapturous” (D5 128). And in March of 1940 she registers a burst of optimism as she anticipates finally finishing her biography of Roger Fry with a set of four happy accolades to spring crocuses.  On March 7, after remarking, “Crocuses out & snow drops,” she goes on to exclaim, “Oh it’s the spring that’s come while I was ill -- birds chirping, P[ercy, the gardener]spraying apple trees;  blue crocuses with snowdrops” (D5 271).  Two weeks later she notes “All crocuses & squills out” (D5 273), and in her Easter Sunday dairy on March 24, she exclaims “it is refreshing & rejuvenating to see the thick gold clumps of crocuses & the unopened green daffodils” (D5 274).

In Woolf’s fiction the spring rejuvenation of crocuses serves as a metaphor for creativity often with a sexually charged sub-text. The mention of crocuses in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), is, however, not very promising. Once the party has settled in to Santa Marina, Mrs. Ambrose becomes so used to the mild tropical climate that she becomes almost contemptuous of the March weather back home in England: “She adopted, indeed, a condescending tone towards that poor island, which was now advancing chilly crocuses and nipped violets in nooks, in copses, in cosy corners, tended by rosy old gardeners in mufflers” (VO 96). Forecasting the curtailed blossoming of young Rachel Vinrace, the cramped spring in back in England signals a failure to thrive rather than a new season of growth.

Jacob’s Room offers the first sign of a more positive inflorescence for the crocus.  After a description of winds rolling the darkness through the webbed streets of London, Woolf depicts the dawn light rising, irradiating flowers like the rebirth of light after an eclipse: “But colour returns; runs up the stalks of the grass; blows out into tulips and crocuses;” (JR 172).  Here the crocus begins to signal growth and vitality in the first of several associations between the blooming of the crocus and the return of color after an eclipse.[3]

A more developed articulation of the possible generative significance of the crocus takes place in Woolf’s essay on the author’s relation to their readers, “The Patron and the Crocus,” first published in April of 1924 and subsequently collected in the Common Reader. Woolf begins by identifying the writer’s initial motivation to create as having been being “moved by the sight of the first crocus in Kensington Gardens” (E4 213). Very quickly, however, the flower evolves from being a mere sample inspiration into being a kind of meme for all creative activity. It is not enough, she maintains, to “think only of your crocus,” you must find a way to communicate your feelings about it: “The crocus is an imperfect crocus until is has been shared” (E4 213). Talking about writers such as Henry James who remain aloof from their public, she begins to use the crocus as a metaphor for the author’s creative product: “Their crocuses, in consequence, are tortured plants, beautiful and bright, but with something wry-necked about them” (213). When she introduces the demands that the Press makes on the fledgling author, the crocus becomes a mere commodity: “Twenty pounds down for your crocus in precisely fifteen hundred words” (213). Instead she recommends that the writer try to find a patron who can “make us feel that a single crocus, if it be a real crocus, is enough for him” (E4 215).  [4]

Around the same time that Woolf was writing “The Patron and the Crocus” she was also drafting the dramatic appearance of the single most memorable crocus in her oeuvre: the “match burning in a crocus” scene of Sapphic longing in Mrs. Dalloway.  Upstairs in her attic retreat, Clarissa meditates on her heterosexual failures and contemplates her occasional flashes of attraction to women, described in terms of an orgasmic kindling:
 It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores! Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. (MD 31)
Although the connection is not made explicit, many critics link this description to Clarissa’s memory a few pages later of “the most exquisite moment of her whole life” when Sally “stopped, picked a flower; kissed her on the lips” (MD 35). Totally disoriented, Clarissa feels she has been given a gift: “ A present, wrapped up . . . a diamond, something infinitely precious” whose radiance burns through to provide “the revelation, the religious feeling" (MD 35).

     The image of the burning flower is a particularly vivid and androgynous evocation of a simultaneously erotic and spiritual moment of being, much discussed in psychoanalytic and lesbian approaches to the novel. Elizabeth Able analyzes it as “an image of active female desire that conflates Freud’s sexual dichotomies.  The power of the passage derives in part from the intermeshed male and female imagery, and the interwoven languages of sex and mysticism” (174).  Judith Roof comments on the “double masquerade” of the crocus: “The phallic match. . . is cloaked again by the petals of the crocus, a flower with a phallic shape" (102), but she concludes that “A crocus is finally not a phallus-- its petals peel back to reveal something other, a flame rather than a stick, a radiance rather than solid unity” (109).

In her Cambridge edition of Mrs. Dalloway, Anne Fernald suggests that Woolf’s “image of a flame echoes the conclusion of Walter Pater’s The Renaissance (1873): ‘ To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life’”(226). Although this reference reverberates to the diamond and dead star of Woolf’s kisses, another possible literary analogue, more closely aligned with flowers, appears in Tennyson’s “Oenone,” (1829), the story of the wife Paris left behind for Helen of Troy.  In the tenth stanza of the dramatic monologue, Oenone describes the arrival of Athena and Aphrodite for the judgment of Paris:  “And at their feet the crocus brake like fire.”

A nearly contemporaneous possible source for the image of the flaming flower is provided by Woolf herself in her revision of “How Should One Read a Book?” (originally published in 1924) for the Second Common Reader (1932). In fleshing out her discussion of the intensity of reading poetry with some exemplary touchstones, she quotes a stanza of “splendid fantasy” from Ebenezer Jones’s “When the World is Burning”:
And the woodland haunter
Shall not cease to saunter
     When, far down some glade,
Of the great world's burning,
One soft flame upturning
Seems, to his discerning,
     Crocus in the shade. (CR2 266)

The remarkable conflation of the glowing crocus as an object of beauty, a sign of new beginnings, a metaphor for artistic creation, a revelation of hidden meaning, and a code for lesbian desire stands behind a number of references to crocuses in the later 1920’s. “Moments of Being: Slater’s Pins Have No Points,” a 1927/8 piece which Woolf labeled “a nice little story about Sapphism,” (L3 397) extends the lesbian context of the spring flower.  Julia Craye is a single, independent woman, a dressmaker unencumbered by the masculine orge of a husband who would interfere with her daily routines and moments of pleasure. One of her great joys is managing to visit Hampton Court when the crocuses “(those glossy bright flowers were her favorites)” are at their peak (CSF 219). Soon after this memory, Fanny Wilmont who has something of a crush on Miss Craye, surprises her in a “moment of ecstasy” as she holds a carnation in her fingers. This carnation seem to kindle a reaction very similar to the crocus in Mrs. Dalloway, as Fanny Wilmont has her own moment of being, seeing through Miss Craye to discern “the very fountain of her being spurt up in pure, silver drops.”  At the moment Julia kisses her, Fanny sees her “blaze” and “kindle” and in an image very similar to the kiss in Mrs Dalloway: “out of the night she burnt like a dead white star” (CSF 220).

Orlando (1929) which Woolf began writing a few months after finishing “Slater’s Pins” maintains the androgynous, if not explicitly lesbian aura of the crocus. Although the novel is a “love letter” to Vita Sackville-West, a noted Sapphist, with whom Woolf was quite deliriously in love, common garden crocuses make an appearance primarily as floral accessories at Orlando’s ancestral country home.[5] When Orlando finishes refurbishing his home near the end of the 17th century, crocuses are part of the necessary inventory of seasonally conglomerated plants: “snowdrops, crocuses, hyacinths, magnolias, roses, lilies, asters, the dahlia in all its varieties” (O 81).  When she returns to her estate as a woman in the 19th century, it is December and she has to imagine the flowers, “the sleeping crocuses, the dormant dahlias,” which fill her heart “with such a lust and balm of joy” (O 127).  A subsequent trip to Kew in March sometime in the next century produces a typical list of spring flowers -- “A grape hyacinth, and a crocus, and a bud, too, on the almond tree” but the vernal vitality of the crocus flower now seems transferred to the more masculinized virility of the plant’s root: “bulbs, hairy and red, thrust into the earth in October, flowering now” (O 215). Aside from this rather phallic image, the erotic charge of crocuses in Orlando is carried by the autumn crocus, associated with Orlando’s husband Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine and with Virginia’s husband Leonard (See AUTUMN CROCUS).

After Orlando, the crocus seems largely to revert its role as a sign of spring or new beginnings but continues to carry the added energy of a fiery kindling. A Room of One’s Own is transitional in this respect.  Crocuses appear in a list of spring flowers, which do not appear in the October gardens of Fernham: “I dare not forfeit your respect and imperil the fair name of fiction by changing the season and describing lilacs hanging over garden walls, crocuses, tulips and other flowers of spring(16). Of course this act of literal denial itself incites a moment of imaginative creation as the narrator opens the gate to the gardens of Fernham in full bloom: “wild and open” with daffodils and bluebells sprinkled in the long grass, “wind-blown and waving” (AROOO 17).  This moment of imaginative transformation climaxes with a glimpse of the great classic scholar J____ H____ and “the flash of some terrible reality leaping. . .out of the heart of spring,” another sudden flash or kindling of light associated with the appearance of a beloved female figure (AROOO 17).

In her 1930 essay “On Being Ill” Woolf again presents an image of the crocus flaming out as a kind of signal of life’s resilience. In an interesting reversal of the “great burning” apocalypse of the poem by Edward Jones, she describes something that sounds very much like the heat death of the universe, a time when “ice will lie thick on factory and engine.  The sun will go out . . . the whole earth [will be] sheeted and slippery”; nevertheless, she rejoices in the continued existence of an ancient garden in which “thrusting its head up undaunted in the starlight, the rose will flower, the crocus will burn” (E5 200).

Crocuses bloom once again in an icy setting in The Waves (1931), in the last section when Bernard is describing the period when the six characters emerged out of the protective coating of childhood with another, more muted scene of a crocus coming to color from frozen whiteness: “through this transparency became visible those wondrous pastures, at first so moon-white, radiant, where no foot has been; meadows of the rose, the crocus, of the rock and the snake too” (TW 182). Recalling the Homeric Hymn to Demeter where Persephone wanders the meadows of roses, crocuses and violets before the earth opens up and Hades emerges to abduct her, this passage presages the longer, fuller account of an eclipse later in Bernard’s description of “the world seen without a self” (TW211-3).

 One of the only humorous uses of the crocus (aside from being mouse-bitten) arises in a 1934 lecture on the futility of lectures, “Why?” when Woolf complains that “Never does the crocus flower or the beech tree redden but there issues simultaneously/from all the universities of England, Scotland and Ireland a shower of notes from desperate secretaries entreating So-and-so and So-and-so to come down and address them upon art or literature or politics or morality” (E5 33). Here the crocus call to intellectual activity is unenthusiastically curbed.

The crocus flame almost disappears in The Years (1937), when despite all the observational flower notes in her diaries, Woolf presents the little tubers as nothing but generic window dressing establishing continuity; in 1880 Eleanor notices that “The crocuses were yellow and purple in the front gardens” (TY 18); in 1913, she remembers “the little garden where they used to plant crocuses” (TY 206).

The very last crocus in Woolf’s writing is, however, once again associated with the image of fire, though in this case one that is lowering rather than kindling. In her biography of Roger Fry, Woolf quotes a passage from a letter sent from Rome where Fry’s reference to crocuses combines their emergence from a kind of detritus of the unconscious with a reference to the setting sun: “Every now and then we came on beds of purple crocus bursting up through last years dead leaves…. We sat and drank wine and watched the sun go down like a red hot ball into the blue sea of the Campagna” (RF 67; Woolf’s elipses). The counterpoint between the rising crocus and the setting sun is a last match lit between the flower and the light. 

[1] A good deal has been written about Woolf’s use and revision of the Persephone story.  See
 Amy Smith and Lisa Tyler, in particular, both of whom interpret the Persephone/ Demeter relationship in lesbian terms, the mother/daughter bonding being represented in the connections between maternal women and artist figures in several of Woolf’s novels.

[2] A charming, extended version of the story is told on an Irish website called The Wild Geese 

[3] Jane Goldman has done the most thorough analysis of Woolf’s use of the eclipse; the entire first half of her The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf is devoted to the subject.  As Goldman reminds us, Woolf saw the full eclipse of June 1927 with Vita Sackville-West, another metonymic link between Vita and crocuses.

[4] In her essay on “Roots, Woolf and the Ethics of Desire,” Lisa Coleman expands upon the significance of the crocus; it “is the flower of a thwarted but unending desire that transgresses boundaries of plant and animal, sex and longing, life and death.  For Woolf, the crocus leads.  Not a bulb.  Not a bulb but a root, the crocus lives underground, hidden, unconscious, but nonetheless alive” (111).

[5] As I have been suggesting throughout, Vita is an absent presence in many of Woolf’s crocus references.  Vita and Virginia first met in 1922; their friendship kindled in 1923-4 as Vita published her novella Seducers in Ecuador with the Hogarth Press. Although the relationship was not consummated until December 1925, Karyn Sproles point out that Mrs. Dalloway was written during a period of “growing intimacy” with Vita (6). She claims that although it is generally agreed that Madge Vaughn was the original for Sally Seaton,  Vita was “likely influential in stimulating the homoeroticism of Mrs. Dalloway "(52).

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...