Eranthis emerges

Every spring, I wait for my winter aconites, Eranthis hyemalis, to emerge. They take forever.

eranthis non macro

I adore these tiny flowers. And for me, they are truly tiny: the blossoms are perhaps half an inch across. They are supposed to be among the first spring flowers, but mine always follow my snowdrops and crocus by about a month. My first one of the season finally emerged this week.

I am impatient to acquire the drifts of these plants that one sees in those gorgeous English gardening magazines. It will be a long time coming, I know.

So, it’s time for me to properly get a grip on good winter aconite culture. From all I have read, the tubers do not like to dry out, yet they require good drainage. Morning sun is fine, and the bases of deciduous trees are ideal places to grow them. Plant them “in the green,” which is to say, blooming (or not in the form of the tubers one will obtain from the mail-order catalogue), and they’ll take off. So they say.

Eranthis hyemalis

My present three-part theory as to why I have about five flowers instead of the full carpet I should have is:

  1. They should be sited elsewhere.
  2. Perhaps they get a bit too hot in summer
  3. Not enough lime.

Their present site is on the south side of the house, which doesn’t get as much sun as one might expect because the bed where they grow is shaded by my neighbor’s large oak trees from early May through November. They should get enough moisture, as they grow near my roses which I should water more but do well enough. Yet perhaps the roses drink all the water up, leaving none for the Eranthis tubers. I am sure they’re being disturbed too much, partly by me, and mostly by the perpetual encroachment of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ into their territory. I am astonished at how robustly Crocosmia self-propagate.

Hot in summer? Perhaps. They’re well shaded by trees and the foliage of everything growing around them–Crocosmia, Iris germanica, roses, kniphofias. But where I live, temperatures in summer stay above 90 (32 C) during the day for weeks at a time, and perhaps most critically, don’t cool off at night. Nighttime temperatures regularly stay above 68 (20 C). I know my garden is full of odd little microclimates, though; perhaps the Eranthis will fare better in one of them.

And finally, lime. Although the catalogues and articles promise they will grow in any kind of well-drained soil, I have read recently that they have a preference for alkaline soil. The unimproved pH of my soil tends to be around 4.8. That’s not alkaline.

So as the flowers emerge, I plan to relocate them, one by one, to a tiny spot at the base of an oak tree where they’ll get some sun, but won’t bake. I won’t bother them there with vigorous digging, because it’s pointless planting very much else at the base of oak trees; and, knowing precisely where they are and what my objective is, I’ll remember to apply a little extra lime in this narrow spot. We’ll see what happens. Wish me luck.


More surprises: Winter aconite bulbs I didn’t know I had.

Cleaning out the shed the other day, I found a bag of winter aconite tubers (Eranthis hyemalis). Christmas in July! I am not sure if they’ll be viable, having been out of the ground for so long, but I will certainly give them a go. I may soak them 24 hours to see if that helps. They’ll get an extra helping of compost just for being themselves.

I know this bag survived a hungry mouse or two that resided in my shed this year. Not that I recommend offering the tubers as mouse bait, but if you have garden rodents, know that they might eschew nibbling these in favor of, say, your bird seed.

Tiny aconity

Remember when I was fretting about whether my winter aconites would show up?

I noted when finally I saw one, in early March.tiny aconity

Guess what? Eventually, I had eight.

aconites among crocosmia

Here they are declining amongst the growing foliage of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer.’ But I write this to remind me next year, when I reach (predictably) my late-winter panic, that yes, there are in there. Have patience.

Proof of life

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any well-written piece of garden literature immediately provokes a craving to acquire the plant described. Two years ago, I was seized by a desire to acquire masses of winter aconites.

Eranthis hyemalis are supposed to be easy to grow. I suspect that my first mistake was to purchase them from a bulb catalogue rather than a local nursery. These bulbs–tubers, actually–hate to dry out. I knew this fact heading into the adventure, but I (mis)laid my confidence in modern marketing, sales, JIT delivery, and so on. The tubers came packed in some sort of dampened medium and I planted them immediately.


They did flower. Here is proof. I can say “they” because I think I got three flowers out of the mass. But where are they now?

They should be in flower, by all accounts I can find. They are said to be fine companions for snowdrops, and flourish and flower in similar conditions. The snowdrops have been in flower for weeks now.

Much of the gardening literature I read comes from the UK, where they take gardening far more seriously than do we here in the States. But some reading between the lines, in addition to a willingness to experiment, becomes necessary because conditions are so vastly different here in central North Carolina. Blistering summer temperatures, stifling humidity, much clearer sunlight, warmer winters, and much drier conditions overall make comparisons an apples-and-oranges affair.

I tend to forget this, I suppose. But aconites are supposed to be so easy! Good drainage?  Reasonable fertility? Moderate pH? All these conditions were carefully provided. They should benefit from the tons of compost heaped on the roses growing close by. I left the leaves on last spring to permit maximum photosynthesis before the plants went dormant. Perhaps they get too much sun? They are planted on the south side of the garden, but the light is filtered for all but perhaps four or five hours a day (not great for the roses, but that’s a story for another day).

I was promised a vigorous naturalizer that would provide winter cheer. I interpreted this to mean it would come back this year. I adore this plant–I think it looks in bud like a very tiny Muppet, with its bright round flower head surrounded by a goofy fringe of leaves.

aconite 2 closeup

I suppose I can sell a kidney and buy a quantity in flower at Plant Delights Nursery, but I’d rather it didn’t come to that. Plant Delights offers magnificent plants at magnificent prices. Maybe later in life, when the children are educated and out of the house (they will leave the nest), perhaps I will be able to splurge there more often (i.e., once or twice). But the children need shoes more than I need a special spring ephemeral or winter-flowering bulb, however charming.

Has anyone out there any tips for me? Or must I add this to the ever-growing list of Stuff I’ve Killed?