By Sura Jeselsohn
Sunday, Feb. 19 was one of those winter days that we all long for. The temperature rose into the 60s and I was by no means the only one in shirtsleeves.
With the snow from the recent storm finally melted away, I felt an almost primal urge to get out into the garden and do something. Well, one thing led to another and I was filling up one garbage can after another with downed twigs and limbs — thank you, thank you, NYC for, instituting organic recycling — and I started cutting down those flower stalks that were finally denuded of seeds and were, therefore, of no further use to the local birds. This is so much more fun than housework!
As I disturbed patches of wet leaves layered over the flowerbeds, I found plants that I had not noticed for months. I found parsley and strawberry plants and lamiastrum.
Also noticeable were the daffodils whose tips have been pushing upward incrementally for weeks now. But in a front yard flowerbed, there was a sudden flash of yellow. My first reaction was that another piece of brightly colored trash — of which I seem to have an abundance — had blown into the yard and had been pinned down in the wet leaves. But as I reached for it, I was stunned to see that I had two beautiful winter aconites blooming away. And a great day became a perfect day!
Given its early flowering, it is not surprising that the scientific name — Eranthis hyemalis — should so aptly reflect that fact.
The genus name Eranthis is composed of two Greek words — er for spring and anthos for flower. The species name hyemalis is from the Latin meaning winter flowering so together the chosen name is perfect.
We tend to associate flowering solely with heat and bright light. However, there is a serious strategy behind the early blooming of many spring plants.
By blooming before the deciduous trees begin to leaf out again, plants growing underneath ensure they get the maximum light available to them, which will diminish greatly as the season progresses.
I must admit that it is unlikely that I will find any more winter aconite plants despite having planted bulbs several times over the years. The dark tuber is quite small and flat and I — along with others — have had difficulty deciding which side should be planted up.
I know I am not the only one that is confused because instructions say that if you have difficulty with orientation, the tuber should be planted on its side so that the root can easily grow downward and the stem upward.
However, I have also discovered that many other gardeners complain about the difficulty of growing winter aconite from the rodent- and deer-resistant tubers. Some say that planting waxed tubers helps since the waxing keeps the tubers fresh.
Waxed tubers can be bought from Old House Gardens (https://oldhousegardens.com/). Another suggestion recommends a thorough soaking before planting, which presumably accomplishes the same thing. Many gardeners, however, simply suggest that it is best to ask a fellow gardener with a robust patch for some plants after blooming has finished.
Another solution would be to collect seed and scatter it where you would like a new group of plants. Once a patch is established in appropriate conditions —woodland soil with deciduous shade — the plant will naturalize quite easily by bulb offsets called bulbils. To see such a marvel, Ithan Valley Park, outside of Philadelphia (https://carolynsshadegardens.com/2012/02/21/a-wonder-of-nature) has an amazing show of hillsides covered in winter aconite in February and March.
Eranthis hyemalis is a member of the buttercup family—Ranunculaceae. The name derives from the Latin Rana meaning frog and Ranunculus meaning little frog. The best explanation for the family name that I could find suggests that since many members of the Ranunculaceae like moist condition they are like “little frogs”. The plants are native to western Europe and the Balkans and have widely naturalized. Ranunculaceae seem to have developed in the Cretaceous Period which began 145 million years ago (MYA).
There are many other members of the Ranunculaceae which are familiar to the public. They include the Helllebores—the Lenten Rose—which will also be blooming shortly, Aquilegia—known commonly as columbine—with its four chambered flower, Clematis—a vine with outrageously large and highly colored flowers—delphiniums and the wildly poisonous aconitum or monkshood, to just name a few. The website www.theplantlist.org is a terrific resource for researching plant families.
I would love to have a profusion of winter aconite in years to come. If any local gardeners have plants to spare, I would love a donation.