Name: Winter aconite
Botanical name: Eranthis hyemalis – the genus name, eranthis, means early flower and the specific name, hyemalis, means of winter.
So, the plant, one of the early flowers of the New Year is well named.
Plant family: The winter aconite is part of the buttercup family, the Ranunculaceae.
The plant, known as monkshood or aconite, is also part of the buttercup family – flowering in summer – with blue, or yellow flowers in the case of wolf’s bane.
As plant families go, this one is very toxic and was widely investigated for possible medicinal value.
Any plant that flowers as early in the year as the winter aconite does is deserving of consideration for planting where it is suited.
Sometimes it is the little things that make the difference in the garden and the winter aconite certainly ranks as one of those. Not the easiest name to remember, this little plant is not nearly as well known as is should be.
A first sight of a good-sized bunch of winter aconites is unforgettable. The first reaction is that this is something out of place but a closer look reveals a clump of bright yellow cheery flowers.
The family relationship is instantly apparent. The flowers are very like those of buttercups but bigger. Bowl-shaped, they are bright yellow with a boss of stamens at the centre of the flower.
They have the cheeriness of buttercups as the simple flowers are upturned to the sunlight with a ruff of bright green.
The brassy yellow colour is great for attracting the attention of pollinating insects from a long distance, which are scarce in winter.
Flowering so early in the season, plants need to offer a little more by way of incentive than pollen or nectar and the aconite does this by forming its petals into a bowl shape.
These little flowers have a shiny, reflective surface to reflect sunlight to the centre of the flowers, raising the temperature slightly so that visiting bees are warmed a little as they collect their reward.
In the process, they carry pollen from flower to flower and scatter pollen grains on to the seed-forming parts of the flower.
It is fascinating to see a bumblebee shuttling from flower to flower on a mild winter’s day, benefitting from the provision of the winter aconite.
If the pollinators are successful in transferring pollen, and the soil conditions are right, the plants set seed and self-sow to make an ever-widening clump.
In summer the plant dies down because the tree canopy overhead has begun to exclude a large proportion of the light.
Native to southern and eastern Europe, the winter aconite is hardy and perfectly at home here. It likes quite damp conditions in light woodland or in the open in light grass. It likes to have plenty of humus in the soil and not to dry out.
Winter aconite is related to the lesser celandine, which is early flowering and looks very like buttercup too – great where it can be allowed to grow freely but a problematic weed in flower borders with heavy damp soil.
Winter aconites flower at about the same time as snowdrops and the two flowers look very well combined, the white colour of the snowdrops enlivened by the golden spangles of the aconite.
It is beneficial to first sprout or ‘chit’ the seed potatoes on a shallow tray in a shed or greenhouse to encourage the formation of buds. A bright and fairly warm place is ideal. Seed potatoes planted with short green sprouts can be ready as much as three weeks ahead of unchitted potatoes.
Varieties for use as earlies include ‘Home Guard’, ‘Epicure’, ‘Duke of York’, ‘Sharpe’s Express’, ‘Lady Christle’ and ‘Dunluce’. ‘Epicure’ ‘Sharpe’s Express’ and ‘Duke of York’ are old varieties. ‘Home Guard’ is a relative newcomer and still widely grown. ‘Dunluce’ was raised in Northern Ireland in 1976 and has very good flavour.
Choose a spot for early potatoes that is sheltered but not a frost pocket, facing south and with open, well-drained soil. When sowing chitted seed, it is worthwhile removing all but two or three of the sprouts to reduce the numbers of potatoes carried on each plant.
Fruit, vegetables & herbs
Prune apple and pear trees. Check on young fruit trees to see if they have been rocked by gales. Most dwarfing rootstocks have small roots and the stakes must be secure throughout their lifetime. Lift rhubarb stools for forcing in a dark, warm place. Seed potatoes of early varieties can be put in to sprout now.
Trees, shrubs and roses
It is a good time to plant deciduous trees and shrubs but do not plant if the ground is wet. Check on trees and shrubs planted last autumn for signs of wind-rocking. Settle the plants and refirm if they have been shaken at the roots. Provide a suitable stake if necessary. Roses can be pruned at any time in good conditions.
If the garden is a bit bare, buy some winter bedding flowers to provide a few spots of colour, especially near the house and possibly in containers. If the ground is not too wet, border flowers can be lifted and divided, if necessary. Many of these are NOW beginning to show signs of fresh growth.
A first mowing can be carried out if the ground is not too soggy. Check that the drainage outlets are clear to allow surplus water to escape. Make sure that you get your lawnmower serviced before the main season begins – this often adds years to the useful life of these machines.
Greenhouse and house plants
Check on greenhouse plants to make sure greenflies and other pests have not become established. Water when plants dry out but still sparingly until there are the first signs of growth. House plants should be kept just moist, do not leave them standing in water. Give no feeding. Be sure to give them good light.