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False Saffron - Colchico d'Autunno

What is the Fake Saffron

The autumn colchicum is a herbaceous plant belonging to the Colchicaceae Family, Genus Colchicum, an autumnal species.

Also known as the false saffron, the autumn colchico is a small tuberous vegetable that blooms in the autumn, resulting rather similar to saffron (Crocoideae family, genus Crocus ).

One of the most distinctive features of the autumn colchicus lies in the fact that the flowers emerge from the ground a long time after the death of the leaves; hence the Anglo-Saxon name "naked lady" or naked woman.

Despite its toxicity, the false saffron is commonly grown in temperate zones for ornamental purposes.


Properties of the false saffron

The tuberous bulb (cormo) of the autumn colchicum contains an active ingredient used in the pharmaceutical field, called colchicine ; it is a powerful mitotic inhibitor (it hinders cell differentiation by mitosis), used in the treatment of various diseases, especially gout.

Colchicine exerts a toxic action on microtubules that move vesicles containing biological molecules from one side of the cell to the other.

Uses of colchicine

Pharmacological uses

Useful but with a low (or potentially dangerous) therapeutic index, colchicine-based drugs are approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administratinon) of the United States of America for the treatment of:

  • Gout
  • Familial Mediterranean fever (paroxysmal familial polyserositis)
  • Pericarditis
  • Beh├žet's disease.

Other uses of colchicine

Colchicine is also used in botany to produce polyploid strains (which contain more than two homologous groups coupled with chromosomes).


Long-term (prophylaxis) colchicine-based oral regimens are contraindicated in patients with advanced renal insufficiency (including those on dialysis); this is because about 10-20% of the colchicine dose is excreted directly by the kidneys but, in the case of hemodialysis, this is not effectively removed from the circulation. It would therefore result in a high probability of cumulative toxicity, with consequent severe neuro myopathy and progressive onset of proximal weakness, elevated creatine kinase and sensorimotor polyneuropathy.

The toxicity of colchicine can be enhanced by the concomitant use of drugs against hypercholesterolemia (statins, fibrates). Note : This neuromuscular condition can be irreversible even after drug withdrawal. In the most advanced cases, accompanying dementia was also observed. Finally it can culminate in hypercapnic respiratory failure and death.

Side effects

All the side effects of colchicine are probably due to the hyperinhibition of mitosis.

The undesirable effects of colchicine are mainly gastrointestinal and include neutropenia (reduction in the number of granulocytes in the blood); both, both of which occur almost exclusively at high doses.

Even higher doses can damage the bone marrow, lead to anemia and cause hair loss. Peripheral neuropathy may also occur, manifested by numbness or tingling of the hands and feet due to damage to peripheral nerves. In this case it is almost always essential to reduce the dosage or suspend therapy.

Colchicine toxicity

Colchicine can be toxic when ingested, inhaled or absorbed into the eyes. In the latter case of toxicity, colchicine can cause a temporary darkening of the cornea and subsequently cause systemic complications.

Colchicine overdose symptoms begin 2 to 24 hours after administration and may be shown with:

  • Burning in the mouth and throat
  • Temperature
  • He retched
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pains.

As an indirect consequence, hypovolemic shock may occur due to extreme vascular damage and fluid loss through the gastrointestinal tract (can be fatal). If there is not a sufficiently rapid recovery, functional insufficiencies of some organs / tissues can arise such as: kidneys (reduced filtration and urine excretion), anemia, thrombocytopenia, liver (associated with hepatomegaly), spleen and muscles (up to respiratory failure ). Neurological symptoms such as convulsions, confusion and delirium are also evident; children can have hallucinations.

Recovery can begin within six or eight days and begin with rebound leukocytosis and alopecia when organ functions return to normal.

Long-term exposure to colchicine can lead to a high level of toxicity, particularly on bone marrow, kidneys and nerves. The effects of toxicity include agranulocytosis, thrombocytopenia, low levels of white blood cells, aplastic anemia, alopecia, rash, purpura, vesicular dermatitis, kidney damage, anuria, peripheral neuropathy and myopathy.

No antidotes are known but, in the event of an overdose, so-called supportive therapy is used. In the immediate term after overdose, gastrointestinal symptoms, cardiac arrhythmias and respiratory depression should be monitored.

Interactions of colchicine

Colchicine should not be taken with macrolide antibiotics such as erythromycin or clarithromycin, which could emphasize toxicity. Some CYP3A4 and / or P-gp inhibitors, including grapefruit juice, may increase the risk of colchicine toxicity.

The symptoms of colchicine poisoning are similar to those of arsenic and currently no antidote is known. The most frequent include:

  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Temperature
  • Muscle pains
  • Low levels of blood cells
  • Insufficiency of the organism.


Toxicity of the false saffron

The colchico of autumn is poisonous; its dangerousness is closely related to the concentration of colchicine. The cases of fake saffron poisoning are mainly due to its resemblance to other wild plants such as, for example, wild garlic.


The autumn colchico is a glabrous, bulbous plant, 10-40 cm high. It has leaves up to 25 cm long, green in color and tapered. The stem is almost absent. The flowers are single, 4-7 cm in diameter, with six petals and six stamens that subsequently turn into fruit. The ovary is underground; the underground tuber, from which also the buds come out, is endowed with inferior and thin filamentous roots.


Botanical overview of the autumn colchico

The false saffron is a perennial bulbous geophite herbaceous plant, widespread in almost all of continental Europe, from Portugal to Ukraine, imported and naturalized in Denmark, Sweden, European Russia, the Baltic States, North Africa and New Zealand. In Italy it is common in the north, in the Alps (up to 2100 m), and rare in the Apennines.

Organized in colonies, the autumn colchicum originates mainly on sunny meadows characterized by calcareous and siliceous soil.

In Great Britain and Ireland it is the only species of the botanical genus Colchicum ; its population density is affected by the control of the "County Wildlife Trust" (Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts).