a photo of bright pink flowers in sunlight

Don’t mistake this autumn crocus for saffron!

By Dr. Lew Feldman

One of the first signs of the arrival of autumn is the appearance of autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), growing in the medicinal plants section of the Herb Garden at the UC Botanical Garden.

This beautiful flower originates from the corm of a European endemic plant. Although also called meadow saffron, it is not a true crocus and should not be eaten. All parts, but especially the corms, are highly poisonous due to the occurrence of the compound colchicine, a drug used to control gout, which is a painful form of arthritis due to the formation of sharp uric acid crystals, most often in the joints of your big toe.

Colchicine is one of the oldest remedies still in use today and has a history as an herbal remedy for joint pain that goes back at least to the 1500 BCE Egyptian manuscript, the Ebers Papyrus. The active ingredient is colchicine, which was first isolated in the early 1800s. In view of the long history of colchicine’s use in medicine, it is perhaps surprising that it was not until 2009 that colchicine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

(Further reading; “Colchicine: an ancient drug with novel applications”. Journal of Dermatology (2018) Volume 178, pages 350-356.

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