Winter aconites remind me of precocious blond choirboys. Their round golden heads pop up early in the year, carried above a ruff of neat, green, leafy bracts. There is something rather unruly about how they multiply and spread too – like a playground full of children who have been running around and have been told to freeze.
Eranthis is native to deciduous, calcareous woodland of France, Italy, and the Balkans. Its early flowering time coincides with the maximum penetration of sunlight to the woodland floor, before the trees come into leaf. Later in the year, once the canopy is in place, Eranthis retreats underground and sleeps away the summer and autumn. Its indigenous habitat, as for all plants, is a good guide to the conditions it enjoys when growing in the gardens of foreign lands. It prefers partial to full shade, and moist, well-drained soil. It can tolerate all soil types and pH ranges, but it thrives on chalk. It is one of a select group of plants which will grow under the handsome and useful, but allelopathic walnuts, which release toxins from their roots to inhibit the growth of competitors. Unlike blond choirboys, Eranthis is perfectly hardy, and continues to perform down to -20 Celsius.
Eranthis hyemalis has a confused identity. It is not an aconite, although the foliage does bear a passing resemblance to members of that deadly family, such as monkshood. All parts of it are mildly toxic though, as befits a member of RANUNCULACEAE. The botanical name is a compound of Greek and Latin elements. Eranthis being from the Greek, meaning ‘spring flower’, and hyemalis from the Latin, meaning ‘belonging to winter.’ I expect the botanists who named it were having an argument.
I find Eranthis works best en masse, which is fortunate as it naturalises rapidly if it likes where it is situated. I have planted swathes of it beneath beech trees, whose shade seems to suit them particularly well. Likewise, they thrive in a deciduous shrub border and help to draw the eye into it, in so doing, transforming the border from a crowd into a collection of attractive individuals with different personalities of bark and structure. The golden flowers harmonise handsomely with any red tones, such as the bark of Betula albosinensis, the Chinese red birch, or contrast dramatically with the whites and silvers of Rubus thibetanus, the ghost bramble, or of Betula pendula, the silver birch. I have seen them planted at the front of a mixed border where they carpet the bare soil between the crowns of summer-flowering herbaceous plants. Wherever they are though, something showy or masking needs to follow after them. Their flowering days are soon over and they become untidy, lanky specimens that hang around for far too long after their sweet charm has faded.