Welcome Winter Aconite

Sturdy stems of Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis pop out of the soil
Sturdy stems of Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. Mabel Amber via Pixabay CC.

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.

Welcome Non-native

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.

Open seed pods of Winter Aconites, Eranthis hyemalis
Open seed pods of Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis.
Photo credit: Meneerke bloem, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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 Its morphology originally made botanists think that it was closely related to Hellebores.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.

Floral Ruffs

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.

Resilient Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, keeps flower closed in frosty weather conditions.
Photo credit: Goranpavic, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and BotanyKaren.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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