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hot p(l)ants: winter aconite, eranthis hyemalis

eranthis-openYOU CAN COUNT ON Eranthis hyemalis, or winter aconite, for a couple of things: to be a pioneer each spring, blooming extra-early even among the early bulbs, and to provoke consternation and also conversation among gardeners who planted them but got nothing in return.

In late winter or early spring phrases like “slow to establish” are heard from frustrated gardeners seeing maybe 2 of the 200 they planted last fall actually doing anything.

Years ago I recall reading upstate New Yorker Kathy Purdy’s frustration on her Cold Climate Gardening blog, and how she’d since learned about soil pH and its effect on winter aconites, as Eranthis are commonly called. In a vintage how-to column in “The Telegraph,” British garden designer and writer Noel Kingsbury notes that they particularly like “chalky soil,” similarly raising the alkaline subject, but reassuring us that “any reasonably fertile soil” will do.

I have no chalk to offer, just “reasonably fertile” ground, and after some failed attempts, I’ve managed to establish a colony here, with two more recently planted areas starting to develop, too. Normally each year around mid-March I’m happy to consistently see more plants pushing up than the year prior (though in 2016, the year of the non-winter, the showing began about February 20). From my own experiments, I’d add a couple of thoughts:

eranthis sowing aroundThe best colonies of winter aconite I’ve ever seen were ones where the plants had sown themselves around over time. As is likewise the case with many other self-sowns, my best success with Eranthis has come under deciduous trees and shrubs where you aren’t in there rooting around a lot and disturbing them; where they have a place to themselves to arise, bloom, fade gradually until they’re good and done, and set seed at their own pace.

If you clean up too vigorously or stomp around too often–whether we’re talking winter aconite or annual poppies or any such volunteer–you’ll destroy the next generation of seedlings before they have a chance to settle in.

Plant tubers in early fall, when they are fresh and not dried-out, soaking thoroughly beforehand in water then burying them an inch deep and several inches apart. Good news: Buying waxed tubers from a vendor like Old House Gardens also helps. I had virtually 100 percent success with their waxed tubers–a dramatic difference from any other time I’d tried to establish a new colony.

Old House Gardens founder Scott Kunst offers a couple of other tips:

“Although animals won’t eat them,” he says, “squirrels may disturb them when they’re first planted, so I suggest covering them for a few weeks with some kind of temporary protection like black plastic netting. Also, in my experience they sow themselves best into areas where the soil isn’t bare but also isn’t heavily mulched.”

In Scott’s Zone-6A Michigan yard they even spread out into the lawn—which surprised  him, he says—or where the only mulch is simply fallen leaves. “And unlike some bulbs,” Scott adds, “they don’t seem to like it when their soil gets too dry in the summer. Other than that, once you get them started they really are a no-care perennial.”

eranthis-wait-for-sunAnother tactic that really works: If you have a friend that grows winter aconite, ask for a trowelful or two of the little plants when they are up and growing–my favorite way to spread all kinds of little things around, actually.

For those who fear that we Americans can’t ever have the sheets of Eranthis that English gardeners talk about so nonchalantly, take heart. A February or March visit to Ithan Valley Park in Pennsylvania, or the Wild Garden at Wave Hill in the Bronx, will prove otherwise.

eranthis-with-honeybee

  1. Layanee says:

    This is one I have yet to try but it is now on the list. Anything that blooms early is a welcome addition to the bleakness of a slow spring.

    1. Laura ~ Raise Your Garden says:

      Ditto that for sure! And who doesn’t love eye-popping yellow. So cheering!! Takes you to your happy place =)

      1. Margaret L. says:

        Once established, they can be very very happy. I have walked my neighborhood in Falls Church VA for over 30 years beginning when my first son was in a stroller. He’s now pushing 33, and I’ve seen the same cluster of winter aconite in the same location every year. They bring back memories and joy to my heart.

  2. margaret says:

    Ah! THE LIST. I know it well…mine is pages long, always something new to desire. Eranthis will test your patience, but is well worth it. Welcome to A Way to Garden, by the way.
    M.

  3. margaret says:

    Elaine,
    They bloom around the same time as the snowdrops, and you will love them. And Hellebores…wonderful (plus like the Eranthis they self-slow, though not true to color–lots of variations, but nice to have the extras anyhow to move around). Thanks for visiting A Way to Garden.
    M.

  4. Elaine says:

    I have Snowdrops, but I haven’t tried these yet. I will also add them to my list along with Hellebores. Great photo – thank you!

  5. Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening says:

    I think you are right about not disturbing them. Certainly the ones I planted in high school were left alone. But others I planted never. came. up. EVER. And they grow best in Barbee’s garden where her predecessor threw them out. One of those head-scratching plants. I will take every bit of information, scientific or anecdotal, and give it a try when it comes to these little plants. And I’m thankful I have them blooming in my garden this year.

  6. Pingback:A Way to Garden: The Book Becomes a Blog | Cold Climate Gardening

  7. margaret says:

    Kathy,
    Welcome to A Way to Garden. This year, my Eranthis colony made more progress, by the way, and so I suppose there is now a patch of perhaps 150 square feet, with three new little colonies sprouting in other areas. And I was thrilled to also see that I have finally gotten a bit of the solid dark blue glory-of-the-snow, Chionodoxa sardensis, going. Usually even when it’s listed in catalogs you end up with the pale-blue one with the white center, C. luciliae (aka forbesii). So I am noting 2008 as a year of major minor-bulb progress. Yippee.
    Margaret

  8. salix says:

    Erantis (the common Danish name) and snowdrops were sometimes blooming (during milder Danish winters) on my birthday February 10 and as I grew up – and even more later on in life – I just loved those early bloomers. My mom always told me that if I wanted to sow eranthis, I should sow them under a hedge or a similar spot where they could be left totally undisturbed.

    1. margaret says:

      I think your mother is just right, Salix…put the seeds (or tubers) where they can have their way, free from lots of disturbing traffic of tools or feet or hands. See you soon again.

  9. Molly says:

    These grow in my front beds under the azaela et al. They thrill me each year because they bloom just when I have grown weary of winter and fear that spring is too far off. This year they came up through the snow to say hello; always a welcome surprise. They’ve now spread to other parts of the garden and are a delight this time of year. I much prefer them to the snow drops that compete for attention. Love your website BTW!

  10. Patricia says:

    margaret, I love your site. I have been going thru it in the last couple of days and find it very informative. Yes, Eranthis is beautiful. I will also put it on my list… Have never seen it before. This is part of the wonder of nature and it’s never ending surprises!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Patricia. Be patient once you get the Eranthis, and be sure to buy fresh and properly stored bulbs from a good supplier (not off the shelves in the garden center where it may dry out before you buy it). Also put it in a spot where you will not rake or dig and so it can just settle in. See you soon again.

  11. Mary Lou says:

    I have lots of snow drops but the winter aconites I planted last fall have yet to show up. I have not noticed them in gardens around me; so I hope that it is just not the time yet in my area.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Mary Lou. The Eranthis can take awhile to settle in, and bulbs (of any kind) planted just the previous fall will always be retarded in their bloom cycle that first spring — so when they bloom it won’t be an accurate indicator of when they’ll bloom in coming years. The best Eranthis patches will be from self-sown blooms, so be sure to let them form seedheads and don’t disturb the area and inadvertently kill off the seedlings!

  12. cynthia kling says:

    Margaret: I have a neighbor with loads of winter aconites and I was wondering if you had advice on when to transplant them? Have I missed the moment or should I actually wait until the fall?

  13. Rosemarie Hanson says:

    How funny! I am Kathy Purdy’s sister. I have a giant patch of them in my garden here in Trumansburg, and was just googling to find out from a friend why she couldn’t grow them and found this site. I gave Kath a big bagful of them just a few weeks ago, and hopefully they will thrive in her new location. Love your blog.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks Rosemarie. I love this plant. Kathy was kind enough to share some of her copius autumn crocus with me so right now all their foliage is up and vigorous…but no flowers till season’s end, of course. Thanks for the kind words.

  14. Ginny says:

    I just checked my garden and was quite surprise to see the aconite up and almost ready to bloom. I am so pleased to see that they are slowly increasing after a huge trench went right through the garden several years ago. When trying to recover from the backhoe mess in August I found small bulbs among the dirt and tucked them in a variety of places. I lost a lot of aconite but clearly some have survived. I agree that aconite likes to be left alone and I now mark the few clumps so that I don’t disturb them later in the season. I love to see the bright yellow splash of color among the brown dirt and dead leaves. I think they are more cheerful then snow drops.

  15. Scott Kunst says:

    Margaret, I’m so glad our winter aconites are doing well for you! Here are a couple of other tips: Although animals won’t eat them, squirrels may disturb them when they’re first planted, so I suggest covering them for a few weeks with some kind of temporary protection like black plastic netting. Also, in my experience they sow themselves best into areas where the soil isn’t bare but also isn’t heavily mulched. Here in my zone-6a Michigan yard they love to spread out into the lawn — which surprised me at first — or where the only mulch is leaf fall. And unlike some bulbs, they don’t seem to like it when their soil gets too dry in the summer. Other than that, once you get them started they really are a no-care perennial, and an extraordinary, earliest-spring pleasure.

    1. margaret says:

      They really are a GIANT improvement, Scott, so thank you. I have read in England that they love a thin lawn to jump into, which apparently can be quite beautiful at bloom time! Hope to speak to you again soon.

        1. margaret says:

          I have them in garden beds and so far so good. Sounds like they are self-sowing for your at a clip, and that’s usually easy to disrupt if you rake up the area to dislodge the new seedlings before they get a foothold. With self-sowns of any kind, disturbing the area before the next generation of babies settle in is usually the tactic I use to limit the territory they grab.

  16. Heather says:

    I’ve never tried winter aconite, but if, as you say, alkaline soils are good for growing it then my Utah soil should work well. I think I’ll be adding them to my list of bulbs to plant (hopefully) this fall.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks for saying hello, Heather. I suspect Old House Gardens and other bulb vendors can answer questions about suitability for your alkaline soils to be sure ahead of time.

  17. Kevin King says:

    Hi Margret,

    We planted them and it was great the first year. After that each year the amount that came up was smaller. They were planted under an ornamental cherry tree, maybe it was too dry.
    I would like to try again in our new place but have to figure out the right spot.

  18. Bill Plummer says:

    I spotted my first touch of yellow yesterday in my NY Southern Tier garden. I will have a huge patch on both sides of my driveway entrance as well as sharing a bed with the snowdrops. Early on some from my yard got over into my neighbors yard, they get covered with leaves and have been a source for transplants to my yard. They are starting to spread into my back woods that I would like to reserve for natives. I think it’s a losing battle.

  19. Charlene Harris says:

    40 plus yrs ago I collected my first seed from a garden friend in Ann Arbor, MI. The first year I almost missed the small green slips, the second year they appeared with frilly green collars. By the third year the flower appeared and seeded. When the seeds turn black (they scatter easily) I simply knock the seeds off into a container, and do not worry about those that scatter to the ground. You can also simply cut the seeded tops with scissors and shake the seeds into a container.

    I scatter the seeds where ever I want more in late spring to early summer into the mulch or leaf litter. I have large drifts of blooming Eranthis hyemalis growing in a variety of soils and conditions over two acres – in the woodland, under trees and around shrubs, and even in our grassy hillside. I find the seeds far more successful than buying the bulbs (which are expensive and potentially less viable). I’ve done this twice now over the course of 40 years at two homes. In our situation since they are early spring bloomers, they grow well anywhere, sun or shine, regardless of the soil because they die back before the heat of summer or the trees leaf out. They are so successful from seed, once you have them they will find a place to grow…and you will have them wherever they want to be.

    I now collect seeds for our garden club seed exchange and grown them in trays and harvest the bulbs with foliage after the 2nd year. If you are patient, seeding is simple and they are free from friends. They along with snow crocus are my harbingers of spring.

  20. Gene says:

    This is a winter for the record book. My apple trees are pruned, and the Snowdrops are done. My daffodils are up for a third time and my daylilies are up 1-2″.
    Are any of these at risk for the next freeze? Forecast is for 55° this week; but it’s still February.

  21. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    There is a small patch of winter aconite in the Parkway near me, city-maintained green spaces for all to enjoy. Woodsy pathways curve around and over streams. I did not recognize this bulb when I first saw it, hiking in late winter years ago, and I had to look it up. I do not have this one in my collection, but I am a big fan of Old House Gardens and knowing their Eranthis tubers are waxed makes them tempting.

  22. Heidi says:

    Well DARN, didn’t know about the soaking part. Of course planted lots last fall. My mother was very successful growing them in Baltimore, but the clay and shale in my New Jersey garden is not helping. Always reminds me of mom.

  23. Connie Young says:

    Thanks for this post! I planted 25 two falls ago and 2 came up this year. I was overjoyed to see them but still so disappointed in the yield. I’m a beekeeper and I desperately wanted lots of them as early food sources when there’s little available for bees at a time when they desperately need it. Now I know!

  24. Marian says:

    I received a handful of aconites in a pot 3 years ago at our local hort society spring sale. Planted in fairly dry clayish soil under some very old junipers and lilacs, plus an also very old apricot tree. They have now spread over about 3 square feet and popped up several feet away. Have been blooming since late February / early March. Thanks for lots of great info and photos!

  25. Amanda Dymacek says:

    These are tremendous for honeybees and I’m looking to start my own colony. I’m glad that you have painted a realistic picture! I planted a zillion fritillary last year and never saw a single one. So if I buy the waxed tubers, do I still soak them?

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