Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is a low-growing, flowering bulb in the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). This botanical family's name is derived from the Latin for "little frog", as these plants tend to thrive in swampy and marshy environs. Winter aconite is indigenous to southern France and Bulgaria, but now grows throughout Europe and North America. It is not to be confused with true aconite (Aconitum napellus), also known as wolfsbane or monkshood, another member of the Buttercup family.
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Winter aconite is celebrated as a harbinger of spring. It is one of the first flowers to courageously emerge from under the snow in late winter or early spring. Growing from a small bulbous tuber, this plant stays close to the ground, attaining a mature height of under 4 inches. It grows in a spreading pattern and may even be somewhat invasive, making an ideal ground cover. Its dark green leaves are round and deeply lobed, giving them an almost lacy appearance. Its six-petaled, bright yellow blossoms are cup-shaped and upward-facing. These sunshine-coloured flowers are a jovial reminder of the imminent season of warmth.
Winter aconite is hardy in United States Department of Agriculture Growing Zones 3 to 7, a region encompassing the majority of the central and northern United States, as well as southern Canada. It thrives in moist, well-drained soils rich in organic matter. To enrich the soil, compost or manure may be added. These plants tolerate either full sun or partial shade.
Plant winter aconite tubers directly into the soil after soaking them in room temperature water overnight. Late summer or early fall is an ideal time to plant them for spring flowering. They should be planted 2 to 3 inches deep and 3 inches apart. Left to their own devices, they should reseed and spread where they are planted.
Winter aconite plants are often planted with other early blooming bulbs. They are particularly associated with snowdrops (Galanthus species), flowering bulbs of the Amaryllis family which bloom in early spring. Snowdrops bear nodding, milk-white blossoms which seem to complement winter aconite's cheery yellow blooms.
Another early-blooming bulb allied with winter aconite is the crocus (Crocus species), a hardy, ground-hugging plant in the Iris family. Like winter aconites, crocus plants exhibit upward-facing, cup-shaped flowers in late winter or early spring. These blooms are typically pale lilac to bright violet in colour, creating a dynamic combination with the golden flowers of winter aconite.
In Greco-Roman mythology, winter aconite was formed from the hardened spittle of Cerberus, the fearsome three-headed dog who guarded the gates of the Underworld. According to the legend, Cerberus was dragged to the upper world by Hercules. In reaction to the sunlight, he frothed at the mouth. Where his saliva touched the earth, winter aconite sprouted. The saliva of Cerberus was said to be a deadly poison, which was sought by the sorceress Medea to murder the hero Theseus. Winter aconite is in fact poisonous, and should never be consumed.
The 16th century English herbalist John Gerard noted the toxicity of this plant, recommending it as a cure for scorpion stings.
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- "The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture"; Liberty Hyde Bailey; 1914
- "Michigan Gardener's Guide"; Timothy Boland et al.; 2002
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Eranthis hyemalis
- "Complete Home Gardening"; Miranda Smith; 2006
- University of Illinois Extension: Winter Aconite; Jennifer Schultz Nelson; 2007
- "Dictionary of Plant Lore"; Donald Watts; 2007