I hope that you enjoy this comprehensive History of Crocosmia, from its origins in the wild, to the story of the hybrids created over the past 140 years...

The History of Crocosmia

From their origin in the wilds of South Africa, through to the historical and modern-day breeding of our favourite garden hybrids.

On the Wild Side...

Crocosmia are the members of the Iris family, Iridacae and so are related to a wide range of much-loved garden plants including Gladioli, Iris, Crocus, Chasmanthe and Freesia. All members of this family of plants grow from bulbs, corms, or rhizomes which act as storage organs beneath the soil. Crocosmias themselves grow from corms which, in scientific terms, are the swollen bases of stems.

The majority of cormous plants grow from corms that die away at the end of each year, forming a new corm on top of where the old one withers away. In Crocosmia the old corms do not die away but persist to form chains of corms beneath the soil, each one acting as extra storage to feed the flowering corm at the top of the chain. The length of these chains varies from species to species.

There are eight different Crocosmia species, seven of which originate from South Africa and one from the nearby island of Madagascar.

In the wild they grow in a variety of favoured places from woodland to mountainsides, to desert, though all are keen to reside close to where there is some available moisture in the ground so are most often found close to streams or watercourses, or other moist areas.

The species are as follows:

  • Crocosmia ambongensis

  • Crocosmia aurea

  • Crocosmia fucata

  • Crocosmia masoniorum

  • Crocosmia matthewsiana

  • Crocosmia paniculata

  • Crocosmia pearsii

  • Crocosmia pottsii

    In addition, there are two sub-species of Crocosmia aurea, namely Crocosmia aurea ssp. aurea and Crocosmia aurea ssp. pauciflora.

    Crocosmia ambongensis

    This is a very short form from a 'difficult to access' area of Madagascar. It was formally classified within Geissorhiza but then was reclassified into Crocosmia in 1994. It's the one species that I've never seen, despite my hopes of getting there. Growing to around 20cm high, it produces orange-yellow flowers.

    Unfortunately, there are no photographic images of this plant to date. However, I visited the Natural History Museum in Paris in 2010 where they kindly allowed me access to the only pressings of this plant in the world, collected in 1903 and 1954.

    Crocosmia aurea

    Crocosmia aurea is a beautiful species that occurs across the eastern side of Africa, as high up as Malawi and, so I'm told, across to the forests of the Congo.

    It is usually a forest dwelling species, growing on the edge of wooded areas where the sun can pierce through and always close to moisture. Crocosmia aurea forms long rhizomes beneath the soil and tends to grow stems from a meandering network of corms and rhizomes rather than as a dense clump. The flowers are large, yellow or pale orange and downward facing, often with very narrow petals.

    Crocosmia fucata

    This is the only form of Crocosmia that naturally originates from the Western Cape of South Africa, many hundreds of miles from the other species. Its home is in moist areas of desert in Namaqualand, alongside streams and underground water.

    It grows 1.2 to 2m high with leaves that first appear towards the autumn, persist in winter and then the plant comes in to flower in the spring, months ahead of the other species. It has long tubular flowers with bright red petals and a creamy yellow tube. It is pollinated by sunbirds, hence the adapted shape of the flower.

    Crocosmia masoniorum

    This species comes from the Transvaal and Transkei regions of the Eastern Cape. It grows in steep green valleys, often before they feed into much larger rivers. To cope with the steep banks and the need for light, it tends to arch at an angle, a habit that you might find familiar in some of the garden hybrids that have its origin in this species.

    The flowers are held on arching stems, usually a rich reddish orange in the wild.

    Crocosmia masoniorum is the parent of some of our best-known hybrids including Crocosmia 'Lucifer', and you will no doubt recognise some of the above habits in this hybrid.

    Crocosmia matthewsiana

    It was a real adventure trying to find Crocosmia matthewsiana in Mpumalanga, South Africa. After many attempts, I discovered this beautiful species growing high up in a mountain forest, around a pool of water feeding a spectacular waterfall, with further plants growing amongst the crashing water as it tumbled down through the rock face.

    It forms an elegant and dainty plant, around 1.2m or more, narrow pleated leaves are the foil for upright stems of small clear marigold-orange part-nodding flowers free from any noticeable markings or colour flushes. Each bloom has a short tube, making it accessible for bee pollination.

    According to records, it was first collected in 1874, though it took over 100 years to be correctly named and classified within Crocosmia.

    Crocosmia paniculata

    For me, this is the giant amongst the species, not just for its height which usually reaches around 1.2 to 1.5 m but for its huge, pleated, sword-like leaves and tough, branched stems carrying wonderful flower buds that resemble burnt beads.

    These buds develop into long tubular brownish-orange flowers, reflexed backwards along the stems. They have evolved to enable sunbirds to use their beaks to feed and pollinate. Of course, we don't have those sunbirds here in the UK but at Wisley gardens I've spotted crafty wasps who have figured out a way to gather the nectar by cutting through the base of the flower and then taking a good long drink!

    It's a wonderful species occurring most often in moist patches of grassland and river fringes where it forms clumps, or sometimes vast swathes.

    Crocosmia pearsii

    Crocosmia pearsii is a relatively recent discovery and one that gave me a real thrill to find in the wild, growing high up on grass-covered mountainsides. Until 1981, it had been confused with the related Crocosmia paniculata and it took the notes of R. Pearse, an amateur botanist to initiate its identity as a new species.

    It's a shorter species, originating high up in the Drakensberg mountains. The plants I saw were only around 60 cm high although I understand that they can grow a little taller. No doubt the plant height is somewhat dictated by the exposed position that this beautiful species grows in, usually in grass on high basalt outcrops, in well-drained soil with cold winters and cool summers.

    The trumpet shaped flowers have a long golden-yellow tube and are incredibly colourful when they open, the persimmon orange petals have a prominent mustard-yellow centre with elegant red mid-lines and markings. The leaves are pleated, and the flowers stems are sturdy.

    It's a difficult plant to grow, seemingly in need of the same conditions it receives high up on those mountainsides.

    Crocosmia pottsii

    Finally, comes a streamside species from the Eastern Cape, distinctive for its smaller funnel-shaped flowers many of which open at the same time for a pleasing effect.

    There are up to 30 flowers per spike in two rows, usually soft-orange to scarlet with a yellow throat, the stems are branched and the spikes are held upright or slightly arching. The flowers are pollinated by bees. The leaves are un-pleated and tough, reminding me a little of the leaf of Dierama (Angels Fishing Rods).

    The whole plant is well adapted for its home alongside water: I've seen it flattened to the ground by huge outflows of water rushing down from the mountains above, only to return a few hours later and see the leaves and flower stems erect again, almost as if they are hinged. In addition, the seeds have a light spongy coat so that they can float downstream to a new home.

    Given the right home, it will soon spread, forming a mass of underground rhizomes and new corms.

    The Plant Hunters

    According to records, the first Crocosmia to make it from South Africa to overseas shores was Crocosmia fucata which comes from a semi-arid area north of the Western Cape. It probably arrived in the UK prior to 1812, as the bulb expert, William Herbert, referred to having bulbs in his Yorkshire Garden for around 25 years, where they increased but never bloomed. It was only after the application of some manure in Autumn 1936 that they finally flowered in 1937. There is no record about how he obtained the original bulbs, or who collected them, but the Western Cape was explored many years ahead of the Eastern Cape where all other Crocosmia originate from. The East of the country was still a dangerous and relatively unexplored region at that time.

    Crocosmia aurea was collected from the 1830's and 1840's from a number of locations and plants were sent to Europe.

    Next appears to be Crocosmia paniculata sometime between 1861 and 1865 with a preserved specimen reaching Kew Gardens in 1867.

    Crocosmia pottsii followed in the 1870's and plants found their way across Europe to interested nurserymen.

    Crocosmia masoniorum seems to have been collected in 1896 from the Transkei region in the Eastern Cape, with one of the early collections coming from a pass named 'Satan's Nek', an area I have visited myself.

    The mysterious Madagascan Crocosmia ambongensis has only been collected twice, firstly in 1903 and again in the 1954, and it was only transferred from the genus Geissorhiza to Crocosmia in in 1990.

    Crocosmia matthewsiana was not collected until 1916.

    Finally came Crocosmia pearsii, identified as a separate species only in 1978.

    Note that in the above, I've referred to each species by their current recognised named, but of course, the naming of Crocosmia was far from straightforward in these early collections and various species have been variously identified as Tritonia, Antholyza, Curtonus, Montbretia, Gladiolus and Geissorhiza over the years as they were gradually grouped and eventually classified as a single genus. Many of my own older garden books still refer to various species by their former names.

    Crocosmia Breeding - The Early Years

    The first recorded breeding of Crocosmia was made by Victor Lemoine in his nursery in Nancy, France. He obtained plants of Crocosmia pottsii and Crocosmia aurea and achieved a cross between them in 1881, originally christening the plant 'Montbretia crocosmaieflora' (now known as Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora). The plant had the characteristics of both parents, including the large flowers of Crocosmia aurea, and the vigour and hardiness of Crocosmia pottsii.

    Crocosmia pottsii

    Crocosmia aurea

    Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora

    His nursery was one of the leading nurseries of the time, and the plant soon multiplied and became popular. Of course, we know this plant today by its common name of Montbretia and recognise that

    it is a highly vigorous plant that has 'jumped the garden wall' and become an invasive plant in

    countries across the world.

    Lemoine went on to breed several further hybrids over the next 20 years or so, most of which are no longer with us, but he was the man responsible for the garden interest in these new exotic plants.

    Some of his hybrids do still exist, namely Crocosmia 'Solfatare', Crocosmia aurea ssp. aurea

    'Maculata' and Crocosmia 'Gerbe D'Or'.

    Crocosmia 'Solfatare' (1886)

    Another keen horticulturist, key to the initial years of Crocosmia breeding was Herr Max Leichtlin from his nursery at Baden-Baden in Germany. He further experimented with hybridising with large-flowered hybrids being the target.

    As the interest in these new plants grew, more nurseries in France and Germany became involved, all raising a small number of cultivars, all lost to us today.

    In addition, keen plantspeople experimented growing them including the Scottish plantsman, Sam Arnott, immortalised by the Snowdrop named posthumously after him.

    Crocosmia Breeding - The Norfolk Years

    The turn of the new century saw a decline in interest in Crocosmia breeding in France and a new region for breeding started to come into force, the private gardens of Norfolk, England.

    Head gardeners of larger gardens were, by this time, regarded with high respect, and their expertise was much admired. The regular competitive RHS shows in London became a place where nurseries, individuals and head gardeners with new plants could show off their gardening prowess and earning a 'First Class Certificate' for a new plant was a rare treat much to be desired (especially if the certificate was awarded on a plants first show).

    Westwick Hall, Norfolk

    George Daniel Davison was born in Swanton Abbott in Norfolk in 1865. He was the third generation to be head gardener at Westwick Hall near Norwich, Norfolk, the home of the Petre family.

    The gardens were renowned, and George together with his seven gardeners tended them with great pride. The estate was extensive and there was a commercial fruit farm.

    The herbaceous borders were magnificent and George 'improved' many plants by hybridisation. He acquired corms or various Crocosmia and they thrived on the sandy loam soil of Westwick Hall.

    He produced 11 hybrids from 1895 until 1912 including 'George Davison', 'Lady Hamilton' and 'Star of the East'. In 1902 Crocosmia 'George Davison' won an award of merit from the RHS. In 1905 'Prometheus' also won an Award of Merit and First Class Certificates at Shrewsbury and, and at the time it was known as 'the finest Crocosmia ever produced'.

    Crocosmia 'George Davison'

    Crocosmia 'Lady Hamilton'

    Crocosmia 'Star of the East'

    In 1908 George donated his collection of hybrids to the head gardener at Earlham Hall. George concentrated his efforts on the fruit farm, possibly because Major Petre thought this was more lucrative!

    So, with this donation of plants the batten was passed onto Sidney Morris, the owner of nearby Wreatham Hall. His head gardener was George Henley who had himself been hybridising Crocosmias for a few years. Wreatham Hall had be destroyed by fire years before, but the garden was still maintained by Henley.

    In 1912/1913 Sidney Morris moved to a new home, Earlham Hall where he commissioned a design for a new garden. The company employed to undertake this task was 'Wallace & Company' and the supervisor was one John Fitt, better known as Jack Fitt.

    George Henley continued with hybridising introducing new varieties: 'Queen Adelaide' (1913), 'Queen Elizabeth' (1915), 'Queen of Spain' (1916), all of which were given Awards of Merit.

    At the end of the work, Morris requested that Fitt stayed on to assist George Henley, who was by now nearing retirement. When Henley finally retired around 1918, Jack became head gardener.

    New hybrids continued to be presented at the RHS shows, the result of Henley and Fitt working together - 'Queen Alexandria', 'Queen Mary', 'Nimbus' (all 1918) and 'His Majesty' (1919). The collection of hybrids released over this period have become known as the 'Earlham Hybrids' with large flowers being their signature.

    The desire to win awards was not just for the esteem of the garden owner and head gardener. A Crocosmia with an RHS Award of Merit was desired by other gardens and collectors and new plants that were sold from Earlham Hall could command high prices. Maybe nothing quite like the boom prices of tulips in the period known as 'Tulipomania', but never-the-less individual corms could sell more well over the weekly wage of a gardener at that time.

    Sidney Morris died in 1924, and Jack Fitt inherited his stock of Crocosmias.

    He went on to be appointed head gardener to the Hon. Mrs Edwin Montague at her home Breccles Hall, still in Norfolk. Here he continued to hybridise although most of these have now been lost to history along with most of the records, however the Earlham Hybrids still evoke a high point in Crocosmia breeding.

    The sale of corms of new hybrids continued from Breccles Hall with high prices being charged, so really were the fancies of wealthy garden owners, the prices kept them out of reach of the average garden enthusiast.

    I visited Breccles Hall in 2005 and was kindly allowed to wander the borders, just in case an old hybrid was lurking there, but unfortunately nothing was to be seen. Edwin Montague was a Liberal politician and entertained lavishly with the Rothschilds, Churchill and various royalty becoming regular visitors. During my visit I was shown a stone in the garden marked by Winston Churchill himself.

    Crocosmia Breeding - 1930 onwards

    Jack Fitt continued to release new hybrids well into the 1930's but world events had an impact on grand and lavish gardens.

    The London Stock Market Crash and the Wall Street Crash in New York, both in 1929 saw fortunes lost, and was followed by The Great Depression and World War Two which encouraged vegetable growing in place of flowers as part of the 'dig for victory' campaign.

    Luxuries were disposed of, and Crocosmia breeding almost totally dried up.

    It wasn't until the 1950's when recovery started, and two new notable hybrids appeared.

    Crocosmia 'Emily McKenzie' received an RHS award of Merit in 1952, having been bred in Newcastle. I met the granddaughter of the breeder, Mr McKenzie, a few years ago and she shared a copy of the Award Certificate. This is a wonderful variety which unfortunately has been a little weakened over the years, so I keep an eye out for strong-growing clumps that might retain the original vigour. It still retains an 'Award of Garden Merit' today.

    Crocosmia 'Emily McKenzie' AGM

    The following year 'Carmin Brilliant' was released by the Pfitzer Nursery in Germany, another superb form that still retains an Award of Garden Merit. 'Carmin Brilliant' might be 'Carminea' renamed, the latter being a hybrid from pre-1912, or might be derived from it.

    Another decade passed with no real hybridising, and it was the harsh cold winter of 1963 that spurred the next notable breeder into action.

    Alan Bloom at Bressingham Gardens noticed that, despite the extreme cold, Crocosmia masoniorum and Crocosmia paniculata appeared to be hardy. At that time, Crocosmia paniculata was still named Curtonus paniculata so he was under the impression that he was cross-pollinating between two different genera! He made crosses using three species, namely C. masoniorum, C. paniculata and C. pottsii, plus Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora (Montbretia). Hundreds of seedlings were raised and gradually the winners were selected including some very well-known names.

    Crocosmia 'Lucifer' was one of the six selections chosen for production and is now one of the best known of all Crocosmias across the world. Other 'Bressingham Hybrids' included 'Emberglow',

    'Spitfire' and 'Bressingham Blaze'.

    Alan Bloom

    Crocosmia 'Lucifer' AGM

    Crocosmia 'Spitfire' AGM

    After the work at Bressingham, there appears to be another temporary pause but before long a host of smaller breeders took up the challenge.

    In the 1980's Phillipa Browne was working for Treasures of Tenbury, a nursery on the England/Wales border and whilst there she named a number of varieties. Phillipa told me that 'Solfatare' was usually the mother plant. Some of my favourites come from Phillipa including 'Dusky Maiden',

    'Harlequin' and 'Debutante' (which recently attained an Award of Garden Merit).

    Crocosmia 'Debutante' AGM

    Crocosmia 'Harlequin'

    In South Zeal, mid-Devon, Terry Jones, an incredible plantsman who had tinkered with hybridising Nerines, created the wonderful 'Zeal Giant' and 'Zeal Un-Named' both of which now hold AGM status.

    Crocosmia 'Zeal Giant' AGM

    Crocosmia 'Zeal Giant' AGM

    Crocosmia 'Zeal Un-Named' AGM

    The National Collection Holder for Crocosmia for many years was David Fenwick. The plants surrounded his home in Plymouth and I paid many visits there, as well as many visits by David to my own nursery. His knowledge and enthusiasm was, and still is, incredible and I gleaned much information from him. David gave up his collection some years ago, and the National Collection now sits with Mark Fox in Lincolnshire. One of David's hybrids is 'Harmonia', a good and reliable red that I look forward to seeing in bloom each year.

    Crocosmia Harmonia'

    Many Crocosmias are cultivated In Holland, both for the bulb (corm) and plant markets and a number of hybrids have their origins there. The 'Jac van Dijk' nursery released a few hybrids, and these were inherited and further developed by Willem Davelaar at Kwekerijj Davelaar near Utrecht. Davelaar supply quite a number of corms to growers across Europe and some of their own hybrids have become more familiar in recent years including 'Suzanna' and 'Pride of Plantion'. Willem was quick to correct me when I listed the latter as 'Pride of Plantation' in error! (Plantion is the auction house in Utrecht and Willem has been closely associated with it for a great many years).

    Willem Leenen and his brother have also developed some very nice hybrids, one of which, 'Prince of Orange', I was given the opportunity to name and launch myself in one of our displays at Hampton Court Flower Show. This was a variety originally developed for its seedheads rather than its flowers. The use of seedheads in flower arranging is an area not yet explored by others and is likely to become another way that we might come across Crocosmia in the future.

    Crocosmia 'Suzanna'