Eranthis hyemalis

Eranthis hyemalis

The winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is often the first flower of the New Year to appear - particularly if it’s planted in a sunny, warm position. Then the round buds, still cradled by the leaves, push upwards through the ground before the clear-yellow flowers open. The flowers are sensitive to warmth. They will remain tightly shut on cold days and only open if the temperature reaches roughly 10C (50F). Then they can be sure that early bees and pollinators are foraging and these plants need to be pollinated because they spread by seed.

 History

Eranthis hyemalis is a herbaceous perennial native to Europe, which belongs to the family ‘Ranunculaceae’ or ‘buttercup family’. It is more commonly known as Winter Aconite or Wolf’s bane.

It was first identified with the classical aconite, which was a poisonous herb dedicated to Hecate, a moon goddess in Greek mythology, who taught witchcraft and sorcery and was Goddess of the dead. But its origins have been steeped in tales from Greek and Roman mythology. It has been said that Medea tried to poison Theseus by putting aconite in his wine. Aconite is thought to have come from the saliva of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the Underworld. Hercules dragged Cerberus up from the Underworld, while the dog turned his face away from the light, barking and depositing saliva along the path. The saliva hardened in the soil and produced its lethal poison in the plants that grew from the soil. Because it was formed and grew on hard stones, farmers called it 'aconite' (from the Greek akone, meaning 'whetstone'). Aconite is said to be one of the most poisonous plants in cultivation and in 1982 it accounted for the death of a woman who used it to make horseradish sauce.

Growing Conditions

Eranthis grows well in full sun to light shade. It is adaptable to a wide variety of soils, but it needs good drainage. It requires constant moisture during its growing season, but can tolerate dryness during summer dormancy.

Plant in an open sunny position on a warm sunny bank, or in a lawn, on a sunny corner of a woodland border or under a deciduous tree. You can either buy raisin-like tubers in autumn or you can buy winter aconites in 'the green' in late spring. The latter are usually listed in gardening magazines (under the small adverts) and sold in hundreds and these are not expensive. They arrive in leaf and you will need to carefully tease the clumps apart before planting to a depth of two inches. If you buy either order them in 50s or 100s. One hundred bulbs costs 9.00 from a supplier like Peter Nyssen. One hundred ‘in the green plants’ costs roughly double. Sprinkle the tubers or lay out the plants randomly and plant to a depth of two inches. Then allow them to self seed. Leave undisturbed as much as possible until the clumps are really congested. If this happens lift the clump and tease it apart just as they are dying down and replant in threes.

Grow with

The best partners are early-flowering, diminutive varieties of crocus in blues and purples. These could include ‘Blue Pearl’, ‘Ladykiller’(a purple-violet and white), ‘Firefly’ and ‘Tricolor’. The larger flowering Dutch crocus flower four weeks later than aconites and their size tends to overwhelm them. If growing in grass in full sun it is safe to add some invasive ‘tommies’ - varieties of Crocus tommasinianus. These include ‘Barr’s Purple’, ‘Prince Claus’, ‘Whitewell Purple’ and ‘Ruby Giant’.

Propagating Eranthis

If you require more Eranthis plants then they can be propagated by division in spring after they have completed flowering.

Cultivation

Plant Eranthis tubers about four inches apart and two to three inches deep. Plant in late summer or very early fall. Soak the tubers in water overnight before planting. Winter Aconite are generally free of problems. Because they are poisonous, even deer and rabbits usually avoid them. The tubers may rot in very wet conditions. Eranthis can be propagated by seed or by lifting tubers after flowering but before the leaves have completely died back. They dislike being disturbed, so collect tubers sparingly. They will naturalize in favorable conditions.

Uses

In their natural habitat, all species of Eranthis grow on forest floors, enjoying the sunlight of early spring before the deciduous trees have leafed out. They look wonderful planted in large drifts under trees. They are also very attractive in rock gardens. Many gardeners plant some near the door, so they can enjoy the early bloom.

Winter Aconite Varieties to Grow

Eranthis hyemalis ‘Guinea Gold’ - large flowers, bronze-tinted foliage Eranthis hyemalis ‘Flora Plena’ - double flowered

Further Info

A rare species of Eranthis heyemalis is ‘Eranthis hyemalis Flora Plena’. This is a lovely winter aconite with ruffled, double flowers of green and bright yellow above bright green leaves.

Another more recent hybrid available from Pottertons Nurseries, is Eranthis hyemalis 'Schwefelglanz'. It is described as ‘Very large, vigorous clone with large straw coloured flowers over dark green foliage. This stunning new hybrid selection is recently obtained from Germany, the English translation of 'Schwefelglanz' is sulphur glow’.


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