Eranthis hyemalis: winter aconite, winter hellebore, winter wolf’s bane.
Jack Frost has arrived in the south of England, wrapping his icy arms around our London garden, petrifying bare earth with his icy breath. His late arrival has sent many optimistic plants that dared to bloom early back into hiding. The puckered, pink flowers of Magnolia x soulangeana are already tinged brown, tainted forever, whilst hellebores hang their pretty heads in shame. Yet all is not lost. Beneath the trees, shoulder-to-shoulder with shimmering snowdrops, little pools of winter sunshine are forming, quickly merging to create serpentine lakes of glowing gold. The plant responsible for this prevernal phenomenon is the winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis.
Winter aconites live fast and die young, sprouting from frozen earth in January and disappearing underground by late spring. Flowers leap like tiny candle flames from a backswept ruff of glossy stem leaves held just a few centimetres above the ground. Despite their fleeting appearance the tubers, which should be planted about 10cm beneath the soil surface, insist on consistent moisture throughout the year – the norm in our London garden. They grow especially well on alkaline soils. Winter aconites like to be planted beneath deciduous shrubs and trees, well away from dense evergreens which might shade and hide them from view. When happy, winter aconites will spread about freely from seed dispersed in late spring.
Like snowdrops, winter aconites are not native to the British Isles, hailing from warmer areas of Europe such as the Balkans, Italy and Southern France. Nevertheless they are obliging, unfussy little visitors that never fail to open their flowers, even on the frostiest winter morning. They share with their cousins, the buttercups, that unique characteristic of being able to reflect light, even in the absence of sunshine. Pure joy. I recommend planting winter aconites beneath a yellow witch hazel or early flowering cherry such as Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, surrounded by snowdrops, Leucojum vernum, primulas and plumonarias that will produce enough luxuriant foliage to disguise the aconites as they turn and fade.