Every garden with deciduous trees should have this plant. It's a perfect spring flower. It grows under deciduous trees and shrubs. It needs full sun in the spring when the leaves are off these plants. In very early spring it sends up beautiful buttercup yellow flowers that can carpet the ground. Winter aconite flowers long before any other plant often coming up through the snow to do so. Its very hardy to zone 3 and needs no care once its planted. By late spring all traces of the plant have vanished again until next year. It does however need to be cold stratified before it will germinate. Best way is to sow seeds directly into the ground in late fall early winter in an area that will not be disturbed, then wait for the flowers which can take a few years to emerge. Winter Aconite brings brightness to the garden just as winter is looking to depart a joy to those who find winter depressing and can see that spring is on its way. Will self seed over time and produce large drifts of these beautiful flowers. Who could not love this plant.
Description of Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis).
Often called the first flower of spring or harborer of spring because it flowers so early in the year. In zone 6b that can be anywhere from mid February to early March depending on the weather. First to appear is a flat circle of 'leaves' which are not really leaves but the bracts of the flower. These are deeply lobed and dissected with pronounced white veins. This bract can reach up to 4 inches (10cm) across and up to 6" (15cm) tall. In the center is a single bright yellow cup shaped flower with six oval petals, which are also not really petals but the sepals while the true petals are modified into tiny nectaries that sit just inside the larger sepals almost hidden by the longer slightly lighter stamens. Flowers are usually about 1" across (2.5cm) and while six 'petals' are the most common some flowers may have 5 or as many as 8. The flowers are sensitive to temperature and will open in warmer weather and when exposed to the sun and close on cloudy and cooler days. While some sources state they will remain closed unless the temperature is 50°F ( 10°C) or above our experience shows that they will open at much lower temperatures provided that they are in full sun. Once they sun leaves them or clouds arrive they will close. Flower can last for several weeks depending on the weather. In cool springs flowers can stay around for up to 6 weeks. If the temperatures rise quickly they may be gone within 10 days. Flowers are followed by star shaped seed pods and finally the leaves emerge which are less than an inch long and not commonly noticed. By early summer the whole plant has died down and no trace is left until early next spring.
Should you grow Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) from seed?
Winter aconites are finicky. They do germinate well but they need a lot of special care if done with seed trays. Seeds can take anywhere from a month to a year to germinate. It then takes about four years before the bulbs are large enough to flower.
Why bother many may ask? Well if you want to create large drifts of these wonderful flowers its going to take a lot of time to create one. In the past these have been created very gradually over time. Someone buys a few bulbs and twenty years later they have a small drift of plants. A lot of people don't want to wait that long. You could go out and buy a huge number of bulbs, and if you a few thousand dollars to spend on bulbs that is your best approach. However most people don't want to spend that much on plants. So a faster way is to buy seeds, you can get a lot more seeds for a few dollars than you would bulbs. While it will still take four years before your seeds flower you have a quick leg up on the large drift you want for a lot less money. The most ideal option would be to buy a few bulbs and plant them and the seeds in the spot that you want to create your drift. That will ensure that your bed is going to be bigger much faster than any other method except the really expensive one.
How to grow Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) from Seed.
Seeds need to be cold moist stratified before they will germinate. They need at least a month and in many cases up to a year. While you can recreate this artificially and grow the seeds in flats we really don't think its worth the time. The best method is to just sow the seeds where you want to create your aconite drift and leave them to it.
Aconites, like most bulbs, don't like to be disturbed so pick an area that you wont be digging in AT ALL, EVER. Mowing is fine but don't disturb the soil once the seeds or bulbs are in. An area under deciduous trees or shrubs that gets sunshine on winter and spring days is ideal. Flowers bloom in the very early spring when there are no leaves on the trees so they are perfect for woodland settings.
Prepare the bed. Clear the area of all leaves and weeds rake the ground over. If the soil is very poor add some good organic compost to the soil first. Scatter the seeds on the soil and then cover lightly with about ½" ( 1.2cm) of soil. Then leave them alone. If planting some bulbs at the same time, plant the blubs first then scatter the seeds around them before adding the soil on top.
That's it. Over time the seeds will germinate and in a few years you will have your own lovely drift of aconites. Over time they will self seed and increase in numbers.
Best time to seed Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis). Is in the fall or early winter before the ground freezes. Second best time is in early spring after the ground has unfrozen and is workable, spring sown seeds may take a lot longer to germinate as they have not received the benefit of the cold winter stratification. DO NOT sow in the summer months as the seeds do not like hot weather. If you purchase seeds during the summer keep them in a refrigerator until fall and sow them then.
Sowing in trays.
If you want to sow your seeds in flats you can but it's a lot more work. There are several methods of dealing with the seeds once they are sown.
Sowing. Use a good potting soil sterile and direct from the bag if you intend to grow inside. Use either whole flats or plug trays where each seed gets and individual cell making it easier to transplant those that have germinated and leave alone those that have not yet done so. Place seeds carefully for flats plant at least 1" (2.5cm) apart. Cover with a light coating of soil mix. For more detailed instructions see our general growing instructions.
Once seeds are planted water well so that the soil is moist but not wet. Once
this is done you have several alternatives.
1. Flats can be placed in a cold greenhouse for the winter months or by a window in a cold garage.
2. Flats can by buried in the ground outside. (However to us this method seems pointless you may as well just sow the seeds outside. )
3. Place flats in a refrigerator, if you have enough space to put a flat in a refrigerator!
Its very easy to forget seed trays when they have to be around for so long. When this happens they dry out and all your work is wasted. To help prevent this we recommend that after watering the tray you place it in a large clear plastic bag and tie the ends. This ensures that the soil remains moist and is especially useful in garages and refrigerators. The flat can then be placed in the desired location to await any germination. Don't forget it entirely or your seeds might germinate with your noticing. Plastic bags are not recommended for outside use unless in a cold frame as plastic may either degrade or get easily torn.
Transplanting Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis).
Take great care. The tiny seedlings have very delicate stems and break easily. It takes a couple of years before the plants reach any kind of robustness and they grow slowly. The do after all have a very short growing season. If possible use a small tool to dig under the plant and lift the whole thing but the root ball so as not to damage the stem or 'leaf'. Transplant carefully to their desired location and water in. Then leave alone. This task can take a considerable time to completed and takes patience.
Location and Care of Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis).
Location is very important for Winter Aconites. The most important is that it is somewhere that the ground will not be disturbed after the plants are in the ground. Digging around aconites is a sure way to destroy the plants. Winter aconites do best in a location that will receive sunshine during the daytime in the early spring. Under deciduous trees is the ideal location. On banks at the edge of woodlands or under trees is perfect. Do not plant under pine trees there is too much shade and the soil becomes too acid, it will kill the bulbs.
Planting them somewhere that you can see them from the windows of your house is ideal since you can enjoy the delights of early spring flowers without having to get cold to look at them. It can be a real spirit lifter in early spring.
Soil. Winter aconites like a rich soil, this is usually provided by leaf litter and other material from the trees but if there is not sufficient at time of planting add some organic material such as compost to the area. They also prefer a soil that will remain slightly moist during the year. A soil that dries out entirely may shrink and kill the tiny bulbs. Soil that gets very wet or waterlogged is not suitable as it will rot the bulbs. While some resources state that they prefer and alkaline soil we have seen them growing soils at pH 5 but amending the soil to more alkaline produces more flowers. Adding more leaf mulch is usually enough.
Mulching. Leaf litter is an ideal mulch. Since winter aconites are best planted under trees they often obtain enough organic material from the leaves. However if you rake up the leaves then the benefits are gone. The best option is to rake the leaves, break them down into small pieces then add them back to the area where the aconites are. This ensures that the leaves will not blow away again and gives richness to both the soil and the tree its under. Use only about 1-2" (2.5 - 5cm) of mulch as any more may prevent aconite leaves from reaching the surface. DO NOT rake giant piles of unmulched leaves onto the aconite bed. This will produce too much material and the plants will die.
Once the leaves have faded away in mid to late spring the area can be mown is desired. This makes winter aconites an ideal plant for edges of lawns as they will come up through grass and leaf little then vanish by time the grass begins to grow strongly.
Once planted as long at the area is not disturbed or dug into winter aconites need no extra care, they just grow. It's a very easy plant and even cleans up after itself when its done. The leaves disintegrate by mid spring and no trace of the plant is left. Its an ideal plant that brightens the early spring.
But Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is poisonous right?
While a great many sites do state unequivocally that it is poisonous there is no real evidence to show that this is true. I spent a considerable time combing the scientific literature and there were no valid documents anywhere that support any toxicity at all - except to insects. All the internet sources seem to be cloned from each other and site fable and legend not facts.
The problem seems to stem from its appearance rather than it's true nature.
In the past many plants were identified and classified by how they looked so
if a plant looked similar to another plant then it must be related. So Winter
aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) were deemed similar to the Aconitum genus
- hence the name winter aconite - mainly due to the fact that the leaves looked
sort of similar. This classification totally ignored any other characteristics
such as flowers and growth height. Aconitum encompasses the wolfsbane plants
which really look nothing like winter aconites but are very poisonous.
Winter aconites are not even related to the aconitum and are in the buttercup family (Ranunculales). They do indeed have flowers that are very similar to buttercups and nothing like wolfbane. For some reason the original classification ignored the flowers and concentrated on the leaves. A very stupid idea.
So poor winter aconites got labeled as deadly poison with sources even claiming that these plants were used to make poison arrows. However no research papers have ever found any toxicity to large animals from this plant. Some toxicity to small insects has been reported but nothing else. The Medical Toxicology Unit at Guy's and St Thomas's Hospital in the UK has stated that although no conclusive analysis of the plant is available and there are no reported cases of any creature, human or otherwise, being poisoned by Eranthis hyemalis. While it has been reported that if large quantities of buttercups (Ranunculales) digestive problems have been reported there are no direct poisonings. So basically, no it's not poisonous.