Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Winter Aconite-- Eranthis hyemalis

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture

This time of year I'm chomping at the bit to see some sign of life in my garden. It's not unusual to see me prowling around, peering at the mulch in my garden where I know a perennial is lurking below, ready to start another growing season.

On really desperate days I'm out there with my little hand cultivator, carefully loosening the mulch, looking for the hopeful sign of green shoots poking their way to the surface.

Each day, especially after all our recent rain, I find something new growing. I planted several new species of bulbs last fall, so this spring is especially exciting as totally new additions to my garden are making their debut performance.

A lot of the new bulbs are truly a surprise to me, as I'm not always the best record keeper when it comes to spring bulbs. I'm downright anal when it comes to my perennials, most of them sporting individual labels with both common and Latin names printed on them. It looks like a mini-cemetery in my yard right now, with all the metal plant markers dotting the landscape!

I have every intention of labeling bulbs I plant. I start out strong, with a little map of my yard, and notes as to what's planted where. Somewhere during the process, the map gets forgotten and bulbs are planted anyway. Usually ditching the map coincides with the fall weather rapidly deteriorating, and the realization that there is still of small fortune's worth of bulbs sitting in the garage waiting to be planted. Considering that my husband and I planted several hundred bulbs last fall, it's no shock that we have a few surprises in the yard that we forgot we planted!

I absolutely love planting bulbs that I've never grown before. I grew up surrounded by tulips and the occasional daffodil in my mom's garden, so many of the lesser known bulbs are totally new to me.

I wish I could say I always abide by the advice I give to other homeowners, and carefully research each plant addition to my landscape before I purchase it. But on more than one occasion a glossy picture promising gorgeous spring blooms has gotten the best of me where bulbs are concerned.

It didn't take much to convince me to purchase some garden souvenirs on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg last fall. They had a few spring bulbs for sale, and all of them were new to me, and hardy in our Zone 5 climate. How could I resist?

One of the spring bulbs I bought was Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, a native species of southern Europe . While we commonly refer to a lot of plants as "bulbs", technically Winter Aconite grows from a tuber, a modified section of stem tissue. No matter what they technically are, right now I find myself wishing I had purchased more than the small package of three tubers I brought home with me from Colonial Williamsburg.

Winter Aconite, a relative of the buttercup, is a very small yellow flower, only about four inches in height. By itself, you could easily overlook it. Its true impact is realized when it multiplies and naturalizes in an area, blanketing an area in bright yellow.

The flowers are remarkably durable, withstanding occasional spring frosts and even light dustings of snow. The flowers remain open on bright sunny days, but retreat into a tightly closed cluster during inclement weather.

The origin of the common name Winter Aconite and the fact that the entire plant is poisonous has its origin in Greek and Roman mythology. According to the myth, Medea attempted to murder Theseus by tainting his wine with the poisonous saliva of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the underworld.

Hercules dragged Cerberus out from the underworld, and the light of day upset Cerberus. While barking his protest, his poison saliva fell on the path around him. The saliva hardened into stones in the soil, and from those stones, Winter Aconite grew. The Greeks called the flowers aconite, from the word 'akone' meaning 'whetstone'.

Large naturalized masses of Winter Aconite can take several years to develop, unless many tubers are part of the initial planting. The tubers tend to be very sensitive to being disturbed, and digging them up to divide and reposition them will disrupt flowering for at least a year in many cases.

I may add some additional tubers to tiny initial planting of three tubers. Beyond that, I'm going to be patient and see what happens with my Winter Aconite. Hopefully they'll grow in numbers and provide my family with an increasingly beautiful display for years to come.

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