Tiny but impressive winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) belong to the buttercup family and come from the woods of Europe and Asia Minor. They give bereft winter gardens intense color and carpet the ground like sunny side-ups with green Elizabethan collars instead of egg whites.
Few things beat this sense of vitality at a time of year when garden palettes are muted and your backyard is seemingly holding its breath, waiting for temperatures to rise. Defiant, perennial winter aconites bloom for a short while between late January and March before calling it a season.
Eranthis is one of the first bulbs to bloom when the snow melts and the ground is soaked, and it's the culmination of a process that begins six months before. September is when you want to start ordering your winter aconites.
You can purchase dormant tubers or plants that are in leaf. The former is cheaper, but don't select ones that look too dry. Any tubers you buy will need to get in the ground ASAP, but if the garden is frozen, you'll have to start with compost trays until the soil is amenable.
During fall, soak the bulbs in tepid water overnight or for four hours, before planting promptly. Aim for at least two inches deep and three inches between bulbs, and give your latest additions a nice drink of water on Day 1.
Plant your Eranthis under deciduous trees, rose bushes, and shrubs. Falling leaves will save you buying mulch and give your winter aconites the humus-rich soil they need. The tubers take close to half a year to settle and become more securely rooted in the soil, though they situate themselves close to the soil surface.
Unlike other bulbs, like daffodils, tulips, and crocuses, that seek partial to full sun, Eranthis hyemalis likes the shade. It's a spring ephemeral, meaning it enjoys the light it receives under bare trees while it's flowering, but the rest of the time, when the trees are all dressed up again, it's happy being in their shadow.
Eranthis flowers unfurl when the sun is shining and close up when it retracts.
The ideal growing medium for Eranthis is one that is enriched and can retain moisture even during dormancy. This preference sets the plant apart from other bulbs, which prefer dry, free-draining soil during the warm months.
You won't need to install an irrigation system for most perennial bulbs, but Eranthis is unusual enough that you can plant it near your annuals; it won't mind the sprinkle. But if the soil conditions are right, you won't need to water your winter aconites unless it's scorching and hasn't rained in a while.
Your winter aconites could benefit from some fertilizer, but it's not entirely necessary. Leaf mold during the latter part of spring can keep the tubers happy. Add some manure during spring, and your Eranthis will get all the supplemental nutrients it needs for the year.
Bulbs definitely won't say no to N-P-K—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
Find out your ZIP code's hardiness zone to see if this plant will be comfortable in your garden. Once established, winter aconites are easy to care for in USDA hardiness zones four to seven in the central and northern parts of the U.S., where minus Fahrenheit temperatures are typical.
Hardiness zones three, eight, and nine are doable too.
Although they take time to establish, Eranthis is super low-maintenance once it's settled. You won't need to do any pruning, but snipping off dead leaves is always a good idea to optimize conditions. Avoid using a hoe so you don't damage the tubers.
It's in the name—winter aconites live for winter. They thrive when little else can, but they're not the easiest plant to establish and have a tough rep. You'll need to prepare yourself mentally for the unpredictability and pat yourself on the back even if only half appear during the first winter. This is an excellent start to a colony that could last for a few years.
When spring is over, don't cut the green foliage: photosynthesis helps the leaves equip the tubers with nutrients for the next growing season. You can remove leaves when they are yellow and the bulb goes dormant until spring returns.
Eranthis hyemalis don't like being moved, but it's possible to transplant it if you know someone willing to share. You'll need patience if you plan on sowing the seeds in containers. They take three years to germinate and bloom, so you'll be playing the long game.
Help your colony expand by dividing the plant's rhizomes after the flowers are done blooming but before the foliage begins to wither.
The good news is that Eranthis doesn't usually struggle with pests and diseases. However, smut may prove problematic. This fungal disease involves black abscesses on the foliage and flowering shoots.
You can treat the issue with a fungicide, but if that's not an option, dig up and get rid of the infected plants.
Animals such as deer are often an issue with bulbs, but Eranthis is a relatively safe choice. You can thwart other animal attempts to dig up or consume your freshly planted bulbs by placing some weighed-down chicken wire or burlap over the area where you've toiled, at least until the bulbs sprout.
Because winter aconites are shallow-rooted, they're suitable for window boxes and pots and will lift the mood on your balcony or patio. They don't like being jostled, though, so the ground is probably the best place for them.
They look glorious in rock gardens, pathways, flower beds, and on slopes where they can self-seed and proliferate. Plant other bulbs for a wide range of colors and ebb and flow of beauty as the season progresses.
Snowdrops are good companion plants or substitutes if, somehow, you're not a fan of yellow. The same goes for eastern sowbread if you're keen on a pop of pink instead.
If you do like yellow, but Eranthis is too toxic for your liking, opt for pretty yellow petunias instead.
If you have children or pets, this plant is a bad idea. Eranthis is poisonous and contains cardiac glycosides, which can cause heart damage in humans and animals, preceded by vomiting, colic attacks, and issues with vision.
On the other hand, it's a great nectar and pollen source that attracts early pollinators, so you may notice more butterflies, but also more bees, in your garden.
The Eranthis genus has about seven species, and our focus has been on Eranthis hyemalis. Eranthis pinnatifida, and Eranthis cilicia from Turkey are the other kinds commonly found in gardens.
Look out for the subdued, pale 'Schwefelglanz' variety or the 'Grunling' variety with green stripes. The Eranthis hyemalis species as a whole is so stunning, however, that obtaining expensive and relatively inaccessible varieties is probably unnecessary.