Yellow flowers are particularly appreciated during the cold, drab days of winter. The sunny yellow of Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, puts a smile on faces as it pops its head out of soil, leaf litter or snow. It is welcomed by gardeners, wild flower lovers and early pollinators alike. Such is the desirability that there is a widespread assumption that it is native plant.
Winter Aconite is actually a native of Southern Europe, from Italy to Bulgaria and Turkey. It has been naturalised in the UK for a long time. It was first introduced to British gardens around 1596. It crept into the wild. The first record in the wild dates back to 1838. It is now particularly well-recorded in the east of the country. The Biological Records Centre (BRC) notes that its presence is probably due to a genuine increase in frequency and improved recording of neophytes. This suggests that Winter Aconites are good at germinating from their own seed drop without human intervention. However, seeds can take up to 3 years to grow into mature flowering plants.
In the green
The flower can be found widely planted in open woodland, grassland and scrub near human habitation, in parks, in gardens and on road verges. They enjoy the early season sunshine. A good spot bathed in morning sunshine is ideal. Gardening advice recommends that the plant is bought in the green, meaning already in leaf. The alternative is to purchase dormant tubers. These can be more problematic as they will not grow if allowed to dry out.
Plant Family Ties
Winter Aconite is a member of the Ranunculaceae or Buttercup family. Its morphology originally made botanists think that it was closely related to Hellebores. The sepals and tubular nectaries certainly bring Hellebores to mind. DNA analysis revealed that its evolutionary ties are closer to the more visually dissimilar Actaea or Baneberry.
The leaves, or more accurately the leaflike bracts, that surround these attractive, buttercup-yellow flowers are a distinctive characteristic. Their resemblance to large collars or ruffs has earned them the vernacular name of Choirboys.
Winter and Early Spring Flower
The flower often appears in January alongside or even before Snowdrops. The botanical Latin name is Eranthis hyemalis. The genus name Eranthis is formed from a compound of Greek words for spring and flower. Meanwhile, the epithet hyemalis means winter-flowering.
Winter Aconite is known as a spring ephemeral. It takes advantage of sunlight on deciduous woodland floors before the trees burst into leaf and the canopy closes. It disappears back below ground until the following year. Its tubers like soil that does not dry out.
Early Pollen and Nectar
The flowers respond to temperature. A Polish research study revealed that they open between 8am and 3pm. The greatest number of flowers opened between 10am and noon. Pollen was shed for between 2 and 3 days. Stamens drop after they have shed their pollen. Nectaries are accessible to many insects in their goblet-like flowers except to those with a short proboscis.
Resilience to Cold
Snowfall was shown to delay the opening of new flowers. Winter Aconite shows resilience in temperatures that would damage other flowers. They are able to close back up to protect reproductive parts in low temperatures and when early pollinating bees are not in flight.
Winter Aconite’s pollen and nectar are good news for early foraging bees. They are a welcome early, alien flower that has become accepted as one of our own in both gardens and in the wild.
© Karen Andrews
References and Further Reading
- Biological Records Centre (BRC) (?): Eranthis hyemalis. Online Atlas of the British and Irish Fauna.
- Compton, James A. & Culham, Alastair (2002): Phylogeny and Circumscription of Tribe Actaeeae (Ranunculaceae). Systematic Botany, Vol. 27, no. 3, 2002, pp. 502–511. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3093958
- Foster, Alison (2019): February 2019 in the SCIence Garden – winter aconites. TheGardeningChemist. 4 February 2019
- Fowler, Alys (2019): How to grow winter aconites. Guardian. 12 January 2019
- Harris, Stephen (1985-2020): Eranthis hyemalis (L.) Salisb. (Ranunculaceae). Oxford University Plants 400. Plant 116.
- RBGE (2018): Seed Stock. Botanics Stories. 23 May 2018. Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh.
- Rysiak, Krystyna & Żuraw, Beata (2011): The Biology of Flowering of Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis (L.) Salisb.). Acta Agrobotanica. Vol. 64 (2): pp 25-32. 7 January 2011.
- White, Susie (2020): Country diary: sunny ‘choirboys’ push their ruffs out of the leaf litter. The Guardian. 31 January 2020.
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