You probably know the tulip (Tulipa spp.), narcissus or daffodil (Narcissus spp.) and hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis), those spring-flowering “big bulbs,” and perhaps also some “little bulbs,” such as crocus (Crocus spp.), squill (Scilla spp.) and snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii , G. nivalis and others). But have you ever tried growing one of the earliest, smallest and cutest spring flowers: winter aconite?
However, have no illusions about the impact it will create in your garden: this plant is small, really tiny! You should plant at least 20 for the effect to be visible from afar.
Its charm is the exact opposite of large, strongly colored flowers, like those of the tulip. It’s a small plant that you discover, almost by accident, while walking in your garden. You plant tulips to impress your neighbors. The winter aconite is a gift to give yourself!
Flowers Early, Early, Early!
This little wonder still offers an element of surprise in that it flowers very early, almost as soon as the snow melts.
By the time the winter aconite is in bloom, there are usually only two other plants to accompany it: the snowdrop (Galanthus spp.), a small bulb with white flowers, and willow catkins (Salix spp..). Depending on the year and conditions, winter aconite can begin flowering as early as January (in southern Europe) and as late as May (in Siberia and Canada).
The Bulb That Melts the Snow!
That the winter aconite blooms so early is not surprising, because it has a remarkable ability: it melts snow! Indeed, the plant has stored, in its small tuber, a surplus of energy which it uses to heat its immediate environment. It does this to free itself as quickly as possible from ice and snow.
The effect of this “internal heater” is very visible when a light layer of snow returns a few days later to whiten everything. The winter aconite quickly pierces this white carpet; each plant melts a small personal snow-free circle. The effect is stunning: yellow flowers on a background of white snow. If the snow comes again and again, as it does some springs, winter aconite melts it every time.
Small and Big at the Same Time!
The winter aconite flower may be small compared to other flowers, but it is huge compared to the size of the plant.
Indeed, the entire above-ground part of the plant consists of only a short stem. It is only 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) high, topped with a collar of fringed leaves. When the plant is in full bloom, its single flower hides everything but the tips of the leaves!
It looks like a buttercup mounted on a miniature plant, as the winter aconite is a very close relative of the buttercup (Ranunculus acris and others). Both belong to the Ranunculaceae family.
On All Fours!
Another characteristic of the winter aconite is its fragrance: it smells of honey. Obviously, to hume the scent of a single flower, you have to get on all fours! On the other hand, if you plant enough of them in a large groups —50 to 60 tubers are enough—you’ll be able to notice its sweet scent without even having to crouch down.
The purpose of this early flowering and the fragrance that accompanies it is not to bewitch us, though, but to seduce the first pollinating insects of spring. It’s always surprising to see the number of small pollinating insects hovering around the flowers of the winter aconite while the rest of the garden is still under snow!
The flowering duration of the winter aconite depends on the climate. If you have a hot spring, the flower won’t last much more than a week. If spring is cold and the temperature drops below freezing almost every night, flowering can last for several weeks. During especially cold springs, mine have flowered for more than a month, which makes the winter aconite, along with the grape hyacinth, one of the hardy bulbs with the longest lasting blooms.
Relatively Easy to Grow
If I mention the winter aconite at this time of year, it’s because you need to plant it in the fall. Winter aconite tubers can be found among the arrivals of autumn bulbs presently in local stores.
The winter aconite is not as adaptable as some spring-flowering bulbs we traditionally plant in the fall, such as narcissus and crocus. It’s therefore important to place it in the right place from the start. That will guarantee repeat flowering, year after year.
This plant from Eurasian forest floors will do well in similar conditions in your garden: a place where a lot of light penetrates in the spring, but which becomes shaded afterwards. The soil should be loose and hold water while allowing any excess moisture to drain. A good supply of organic matter is helpful.
Unlike most spring-flowering bulbs, the winter aconite tuber is deeply dormant at the time of sale. Very dry, it appears dead. It is important to “wake it up” by soaking it in lukewarm water for up to 24 hours.
The misshapen tuber—which looks like a little cat turd when dry (I apologize for saying so, but it really does!)—will, after soaking, become … a bigger cat turd! Unlike other bulbs, there is no pointed side to show the top or flattened side to show the bottom. Fortunately, this plant is not picky about its placement. Whether you plant the tuber upright, upside down, or sideways, the plant will grow and bloom just as vigorously.
Plant the tuber about 2–3 inches (5–7 cm) deep and 3–4 inches (7–10 cm) apart. Just dig a hole of the right depth, loosen the bottom with a spading fork if it’s compacted, and apply some bulb fertilizer before placing the tubers. It may also be useful to add a pinch of mycorrhizal inoculant, available in garden centers, to facilitate rooting.
Then fill the hole with soil and water well.
To plant winter aconite in a lawn, you can lift a small patch of sod and proceed as above, putting the patch back on top afterwards.
The total growth cycle lasts only 2 or 3 months. After flowering, the leaves grow a little and create a nice carpet effect, but it’s one that doesn’t last long. As soon as the leaves of the overhanging trees come out, the foliage dries up and disappears. The seed capsules, formed above the leaves, burst open and the seeds are launched to the 4 winds. And then the plant goes dormant until the end of the following winter.
Winter aconites are toxic in all their parts, as much for humans and other mammals as for birds. Do not eat them or leave them within the reach of children or small animals.
Selecting varieties of winter aconite is very easy to do because there are not many of them and they all look alike. Simply buy what comes to hand!
Of the 9 species, the winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis, sometimes written E. hiemalis), hardiness zones 4 to 8 (USDA 5 to 9), native to southeastern Europe, is the most cultivated, followed by the Cilician winter aconite (E. cilicica) of Southwest Asia, including Turkey, also from zones 4 to 8 (USDA 5 to 9). The two are similar, so much so that they are confused in trade, but the E. cilicica blooms a little later, after the Eranthis hyemalis has stopped blooming.
There is also a hybrid resulting from the crossing of these two varieties, E. × tubergenii, also zones 4 to 8 (USDA 5 to 9). If the latter produces larger flowers than its parents, it is unfortunately sterile. However, many fans of the winter aconite like that their small colony grows from year to year and this form can only spread by division, whereas the two other species also reseed themselves.
There are also white-flowered winter aconite, such as E. albiflora and E. pinnatifida, but they are not readily available commercially.
Flowers and Melting Snow
To melt the snow as soon as possible next year, plant these little drops of sun now!
And discover more about snowmelt bulbs! Such fascinating plants!