T here is a little glimmer of hope at the beginning of January, a pool of buttery sunlight that shimmers on the floor as if to will the sun’s rays to grow a little stronger. Happy to nestle among snowdrops or gather around the feet of shrubs, the winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, is an easily pleased sort.
It comes from the buttercup family, and that much is readily identifiable from the jolly polished yellow flowers surrounded by a collar of green leaves, like a regal ruff. Native to chalky woodlands in central Europe, it gets its name from its willingness to flower before everything else (hyemalis is Latin for winter-flowering). It will happily do so from early January into February, before gracefully retiring back to the soil.
Eranthis is a spring ephemeral, meaning it exploits the short period of light before the tree canopy explodes into leaf, shading the woodland floor. In order to thrive, it needs to spend the rest of the year in dappled shade and moisture-retentive soil.
Eranthis is perfect for under a rose bush or shrubs, or around the base of deciduous trees. They are shallow rooted, producing tubers just below the soil surface, so are also useful for pots and window boxes: anywhere, in fact, where they can add a little spring colour around those that aren’t doing so much at this time. Once flowering is over, they retreat back to their underground tubers until winter appears again. They require very little attention, though the addition of leaf mould in later spring to keep the tubers plump won’t go amiss. If you don’t have this, use a thin layer of well-rotted homemade compost or shop-bought stuff.
I have a huge fondness for the vivid sulphur of the straight species, but there is a sterile hybrid called Guinea Gold, which is richly golden above very slightly bronzed foliage; as well as the delightful and refined E. hyemalis ‘Schwefelglanz’, which has pale apricot cream flowers.
Eranthis is sold either as dormant tubers or “in the green”, meaning in leaf. Dormant tubers are cheap, but be wary of ones that look particularly dried out, as these often fail to establish. You can take a punt with the straight species, but for named varieties I would buy potted plants in the green. Expect to pay about £8 for a single plant or £10-15 for 25 dry tubers. If you opt for tubers, get them in the ground as quickly possible; if the grounds is too frozen, get them started in trays of compost and plant out as soon as you can work the soil