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Winter Aconites - a much under-rated ground cover plant

  • Winter Aconites - a much under-rated ground cover plant
  • Winter Aconites - a much under-rated ground cover plant
  • Winter Aconites - a much under-rated ground cover plant
  • Winter Aconites - a much under-rated ground cover plant
  • Winter Aconites - a much under-rated ground cover plant

Someone asked me recently about my favourite plant, which led to a discussion about what is meant by “favourite”. Did they mean one that I enjoyed looking at? Or one that I enjoyed growing? Did they mean a favourite for each particular season? If not, then is it really possible to have one, overall, all-time, all-year-round favourite plant?

Most of those are questions for another day, but I'd certainly like to share with you “one of” my favourite winter plants - Winter Aconite, or Eranthis hyemalis.

It's a tiny little thing, low-growing and bright yellow: left to its own devices it will form a carpet of shiny, buttercup-yellow flowers, each surrounded by a ruff of bright green leaves. Officially they flower from February to April, but I have had them in flower in mid-November in some years.

It is the leaves that gives them the common name - in shape, they look rather like Aconite (Aconitum), the tall, blue-flowered cottage perennial which is also known as Monkshood or Wolfsbane, and all parts of which are poisonous. However, the plants are not related and this pretty little thing is not, I assure you, poisonous in any way. Not that I'd recommend eating it, of course!

The flowers are a particular treasure, as they only open on sunny days. On a day like today (grey, overcast, miserable) they stay stubbornly closed, like a toddler refusing to eat those lovely stewed prunes.

But the minute the sun comes out, they open wide in the best “at the dentist” manner, bringing a splash of yellow to the garden long before the daffodils get on with it.

In a few weeks they will be done for the year, and the foliage melts away into nothing, requiring no more than a quick rake to remove it completely. They are then no trouble at all for the rest of the year - a truly easy-care plant.

It's not easy to find them for sale, but if you see them advertised, grab them: the best ones are pot-grown, so that you can pop them in where you want them, and they are pretty much guaranteed to thrive.

Next best are what is called “in the green” where they have been ripped out of the ground just as they have finished flowering, and just when they are trying to build up their reserves for the next year. As you can tell, I am not a fan of buying bare-root bulbs or plants, unless your supplier can assure you that they will be lifted, packed and posted the same day. But if you can get that assurance, then freshly lifted plants will quickly settle down in your garden, and if you get ones which have already set seed but which have not yet scattered it, then you are well on the way to establishing your own colony.

Third best is freshly gathered seed: scatter them in position as soon as they arrive, ie in late spring, and remember where you spread them, as it will be many months before you see any signs of growth. They take two or three years to get up to flowering size, but it's certainly the most organic and natural way to build up a drift of them.

Last and worst is to buy them mid-summer as bulbs: like Snowdrops, it is really not worth buying dry bulbs at any time of year, as they rarely grow.

As the flowers need sunlight to open, they suit a woodland border where they can get the low winter sun with the leaves off the trees and shrubs: and despite being tiny little bulbs, they do need to be buried fairly deeply, otherwise they can be dug up by squirrels and other rodent-type mammals.

They are particularly lovely when there is snow on the ground: somehow, there is something so brave and gallant about such a tiny flower, pushing up through the snow, and spreading those shiny yellow petals, long before we get tired of seeing yellow in the garden (with apologies to the Daffodils, but let's be honest, by about May time I'm yearning for pink and red, aren't you?).

So I love their brave and bold flowers, I love the way they spread themselves over time, with no help from me at all, and I love not having to faff around with them in any way - a little light raking in spring, perhaps, and that's it. How can they be anything other than a favourite?!

Comments (4)

  1. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    What a lovely post Rachel - and I'd love a sea of plants like your second photo - the garden at this time of year tends to be so grey and dull. E. hyemalis is now on my list for next year!

  2. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Thanks, Jeremy! It took several years to achieve that lovely bank - I started with a dozen plants from a neighbour's garden, and every year I let them go right to seed, then raked and shook the dying foliage to ensure the seeds went into the ground. That's all!

    As of two years ago, when the house was sold (so I no longer work there), they were just spreading out into the grass: but that wasn't a problem, as they would just get mown over at some point.

    A plant which I would thoroughly recommend!

  3. Grower

    Angie's Garden

    Lovely post Rachel - worth growing. All my clumps are small yet and do get added to in springtime with a few pot grown ones bought at local GCs. Don't forget they look gorgeous with snowdrops too, they do compliment each other don't you think?

  4. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Oh, definitely, Angie - nothing lovelier than a mixture of those two! I particularly love a carpet of the Eranthis, with just a few clumps of pure white snowdrops rising above them - lovely!


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