April 8, 2013

Crocus tale: Greece to the Adirondacks


---- — I opened the door to my decade-old Toyota and was about to slide in when my attention was diverted by the arresting beauty of crocuses, white and purple, hugging the back corner of my rose bed.

The flowers’ delicate petals rose defiantly above the dusting of snow that fell in the lower elevations of the Adirondack coast a week ago Sunday.

I marveled at their vibrant determination to bloom in a realm still icy despite Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions of an early spring.

Amy Ivy, executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County, was on vacation last week, so I could not call her to ask the why and how of crocuses.

So, it’s research, old and new school.

I started with the biggest dictionary on my desk, “Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language Abridged” printed in 1964 by Rockville House Publishers Inc. New York.

For the entry, I found:

cro’cus, n. [L. crocus; Gr. Krokos, saffron, also the crocus, from its color.]

1. [C--] A genus of iridaceous herbaceous plants, consisting of many hardy species. They are dwarf herbs with fibrous-coated corms and grasslike leaves appearing after the flowers Crocus sativus is common saffron.

I was with Mr. Webster until I read the word “corms,” which I had to look up also.

corm. n. [L. cormus; Gr. kormos.] The trunk of a tree with the boughs lopped off.

1. In botany, a bulblike subterranean stem, differing from a bulb in being solid, and from a tuber, in its oval figure.

On page 386, the corm definition is accompanied by an illustration of Crocus sativus. How serendipitous!

With a handle on corm, I went back to crocus.

In the recesses of my mind, there is a link between crocus and viewing the cartoon “The Mighty Hercules” on Saturday-morning television in the 1960s.

Maybe the only connection is the “us” of Mount Olympus and crocus, but I will have to wait until the fruition of President Barack Obama’s Brain Mapping Project to understand the mystery of how my brain works.

So until then, computer-assisted reporting led me to a YouTube video of the theme song to “The Mighty Hercules.”

At St. Lyrics, I found the forgotten words once eagerly shouted by my cousins and me at the black-and-white Zenith set.

“Hercules, hero of song and story.

Hercules, winner of ancient glory.

Fighting for the right,

Fighting with his might,

With the strength of ten, ordinary men.”

After “The Mighty Hercules,” Google led me to Ivy Liacopoulou, a Greek Cypriot who blogs “Kopiaste ... to Greek Hospitality.”

Crocus has Greek origins like Hercules, which is Roman for the Greek muscleman Heracles.

Hermes, the Greek god and not the label, was best friends forever with Crocus. They were winging a discus, ancient Greece’s Frisbee equivalent, between them when Crocus was struck by the heavy object and sustained a fatal head injury. As he died, three drops of his blood fell into the center of the flower, which bears his name today. Each flower has three vibrant stigmata, from which the spice saffron is made. 

In her blog, Liacopoulou writes:

“In Greece, it is cultivated exclusively in Kozani region. Collecting crocus is not an easy job. The workers, bent for hours over the plants, collect and place the flowers in their cloth aprons and then transfer them into baskets. A skilled worker can collect 30,000 flowers in a single day. It takes 150,000 flowers to deliver 1 kilogram of dried crocus stigmata, thus making it the most expensive spice in the world.”

On Liacopoulou’s blog, she has a divine recipe for saffron-lemon rice pudding.

Before this etymological journey, I never knew saffron came from Crocus sativus. My first memory of the yellow spice is of a McCormick glass jar among my maternal grandmother’s seasonings. I purchased the crocus corms locally and planted them in 2008 when I purchased my home.

Tuesday morning when I saw the Heraclesan crocuses thrust through the snow, it uplifted and inspired me to weather what may come my way as gracefully.

Email Robin