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or just about any other place where concrete consumes

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Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

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Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Winter Aconite

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Winter aconite is one way your garden can, well, give the finger to cold weather. No matter that the nights—and even some of the days—are still freezing. When there's some sun, and the temperatures "warm" up into the thirties Fahrenheit, Eranthis hyemalis is open for business.

 

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My colony was already established when I bought this property sixteen years ago, and continues to spread year after year.

 

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When it's really sunny and "hot"—in the forties and fifties—bees venture out for a much-needed meal.

 

Here's how to grow this enduring, enthusiastic, and essential Winter-flowering perennial:

 

Latin name

Eranthis hyemalis

Common name

Winter aconite

Family

Ranunculaceae, the Buttercup family.

What kind of plant is it

Hardy Spring-ephemeral tuberous perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 3 to 7.

Habit

Clumping. Colonies of carpet-like extent and density are possible but, in  my experience, it's more usual that the individuality of separate clumps is retained even in old plantings.  

Rate of growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

Two to four inches tall; width of an overall colony depends on the extent of original planting, as well as the success of self-seeding thereafter. Clumps increase steadily, but in density as much as outward expansion. If a carpet of growth is your goal, you'll want to establish clumps every six inches.

Texture

Feathery, densely tufty. 

Grown for

its bright flowers: As proportionally large as those of crocus, the forsythia-bright blooms of winter aconite are a big show for such a small plant. On warmer days, the six petals open far enough to accommodate the eager attention of several bees at once, but reclose tightly when temperatures fall below freezing.

 

its endurance: If Eranthis hymalis feels at home, you'll have it for decades.

 

its safeness from browsers: Like another Winter-flowering bulb, Galanthus, Eranthis is not bothered.

Flowering season

Late Winter: February into March for me. Eranthis is usually the very first herbaceous species to flower, so is welcome for that reason alone. On the other hand, its earliness also reduces the options for potential plant partners; see below.   

Color combinations

The butter-yellow flowers of Eranthis would combine with other yellow, or blue, or cream, or green. These are all do-able colors for plants with presence in Winter and early-Spring. Even so, it's a challenge to think of plants that are both diminutive and early enough such that they could bring any of those colors down to the level of the small but enthusiastically flowering clumps of Eranthis . See "Partner plants," below.

Partner plants

Eranthis partners are most often thought of in terms of much taller Winter-deciduous plants—shrubs and trees—that will shade the colonies in Summer and Fall, but allow them to receive sun in late Winter and Spring. 

 

"Ornamental" trees—those with showy flowers, usually in Spring—are fine, as well as large shrubs such as viburnums. The gold standard of benevolent shade is provided by oaks, which tend to have higher and more open canopies, and roots that are mostly deeper than the surface layer of soil that would be of interest to the roots of Eranthis. Don't bother trying to establish Eranthis under maples large enough to qualify as shade trees; their dense shallow roots ensure dry soil of low fertility, the opposite conditions for thriving Eranthis. That said, Eranthis is known to thrive beneath beech trees, even though the soil beneath them can be dusty-dry in Summer. This pairing sounds more appropriate for climates that are cooler and moister than that in the eastern United States; I look forward to seeing such underplanted beeches in my next Spring trip to Ireland.  

 

There's an elephant in the room with Eranthis pairings. The tubers sprout so early, and are so short, that there are few options for partners active enough, early enough, that their growth can combine attractively with the Eranthis foliage and flowers. The reality is that the usual groundcover around Eranthis clumps is dead leaves, small twigs, and wind-blown pieces of mulch, whose aggregate color—pale tan—doesn't have a thing to say to the green Eranthis leaves, let alone its butter-yellow flowers. (See confirmation in my pictures, above.)

 

Oh, for the kind intervention between Eranthis foliage and that pale-tan stuff on the ground, of anything tiny enough and hardy enough to be the Winter groundcover for a plant that, at its flowering "peak," might not be more than three inches high. Even lowly vinca, whose round foliage is reliably evergreen, can grow twice as tall as Eranthis. Mosses would be an ideal look, but are likely to be out-competed in the decent-to-good soil that fosters the best growth of Eranthis. And their mats of growth may well be too finely-knit to allow upward penetration by the emerging Eranthis shoots.

 

Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea' is the right height—an inch—and its round gold foliage would be a great partner in both color and texture. But it's still dormant when Eranthis is in bloom. One possibility is the evergreen Ajuga pyramidalis 'Metalica Crispa Purpurea'. Regular-size Ajuga would shade out Eranthis, and, yes, even the much lower, tighter rosettes of 'Metallica Crispa' could cause trouble by trapping Eranthis sprouts underground. But if the colony were edited as it slowly approaches Eranthis colonies, the two plants could mingle with style. Ferny green leaves of Eranthis could cast an inch of shade onto the edges of the bizarre, prostrate, shiny, "metallically"-bloomed foliage of the Ajuga. The comparatively huge, butter-yellow flowers of Eranthis would provide a vivid contrast to the deep burgundy of the Ajuga foliage. (The blue Ajuga flowers emerge long after Eranthis has become dormant.) The Ajuga wants more sun than the Eranthis, but its dense clumps of prostrate foliage would also provide the shade that dormant Eranthis appreciates in keeping its soil cooler in Summer.

 

The only time you can ensure that Eranthis colonies have the room they need is when they are visible—which, for me, is late February into April. This means some fussy work while kneeling on ground that is still Winter-wet, and when the temperatures might be cold. On the other hand, this is also the only time you can pay your respect to the cheerful flowers. Surely you're not thinking of appreciating your Eranthis only from afar, while remaining erect? If Eranthis can make the effort to be up-and-at-'em in Winter, you can make the effort to get down and be with 'em.

 

Another possibility could be one of the "extreme variegates" in the Vinca family, such as V. minor 'Illumination', whose growth is somewhat more restrained than the straight species. Even so, you'll want to be alert—on your knees, with clippers at hand—to keep the Eranthis clumps from becoming over-'Illuminated'.

 

A third way to create visual ties from the bright but tiny Eranthis clumps outward into the wider garden scene is to establish smaller-scale woody species nearby. The stems of Cornus 'Silver and Gold' are yellow-green in the Winter, and would call out to the yellow Eranthis flowers. Even better, the shrub looks best when all its stems are cut to the ground in early Spring: Only first-year stems have bright bark the following Winter. Do the pruning just after the Eranthis flowers have faded, when the tubers' foliage then expands to full height and productivity. By the time the new Cornus stems have grown overhead of the Eranthis clumps, they will have become dormant.

 

Because snowdrops are sometimes in flower the same time as winter aconite, the temptation is strong to pair them. The contrast in proportion and texture is great: Ferny low Eranthis can be the groundcover to the taller and vertical clumps of vertically-foliaged Galanthus. Is it too ungrateful to note that the colors aren't conversational? Neither the white flowers of Galanthus, nor its chilly blue-green foliage, have a thing to say to the yellow-green leaves and strong-yellow flowers of Eranthis. But, if you can find it (see "Sources," below), you can make the best of things by planting Galanthus 'Primrose Warburg' or 'Wendy's Gold'. Either has (comparatively) yellowish leaves, a yellow ball (the ovary) at the top of the dangling flowers, and a yellow horseshoe on the inner segment. They are stunningly expensive. Either is on my wishlist.

 

Yet a fourth option is to interplant clumps of Eranthis with perennials that emerge late in Spring, by which time Eranthis will be dormant. Colonies of Eranthis without such follow-on partners will be open mulch or bare soil the rest of the year. Anemone japonica is a classic follow-on for Spring bulbs. Also, your Spring might arrive early enough, and stay cool long enough, to permit Eranthis its entire growth cycle before the weather warms enough for Hosta noses to unfurl to a complete groundcover. If, however, your Winter is long and hard, Spring might be compressed, in which case the rush to hot weather might cause the hostas to unfurl too soon.

Where to use it in your garden

Almost anywhere the ground is shaded in Summer and early Fall by the foliage of deciduous trees and shrubs, but receives fairly unimpeded sun in Winter and Spring.

Culture

Almost any reasonable soil beneath most trees and shrubs, so the colonies receive plenty of what sun there is in Winter through Spring, and are shaded late Spring through leaf-drop in the Fall. Eranthis is comfortable with more soil moisture in Summer than is usual for a lot of Spring bulbs. Whereas tulips usually prefer "a good bake" in spots that are fully exposed to the sun, and where the soil is hot and dry in the Summer, Eranthis prefers to grow in soil that is comparatively cooler in Summer because it's in the shade beneath shrubs or trees—and yet not also dried out excessively by the roots of those same shrubs or trees. See "Plant partners," above.

How to handle it: The Basics

Eranthis is bullet-proof when established, and will persist, well, permanently. Establishing it isn't as easy. The plants are tuberous, not bulbous or cormous, and prefer not to undergo the long, dry dormancy that's typical of retail (and especially mail-order) bulbs sold for Fall planting. In my experience, the success rate with such retail tubers can be low, but unless you can beg some transplants from a friend, planting retail-procured tubers in Fall is your only choice. In such cases, use Eranthis first as an accent instead of relying on immediate larger coverage. If some of the tubers "take," then you can expand your plantings by division; see below, "How to handle it: Another option—or two?"

 

To increase the chances of establishment with retail tubers, soak them overnight before planting. Provide a well-prepared but well-drained bed, and mulch to ensure that the tubers have sufficient moisture over the Winter and through the Spring. Eranthis enjoys high shade, late Spring through foliage-drop in Fall, from deciduous shrubs and trees whose roots aren't so dense, and shade isn't so low, that the soil under their canopy is dry in the Summer. See "Partner plants," above.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

If you're lucky, and some of your store-bought, Fall-planted tubers establish, you can then divide colonies easily in years to come when they don't mind lifting, division, and replanting: late Spring. Lift them as soon as their foliage is beginning to fade, which will be months earlier than you'd receive dormant tubers from mail-order or retail sources.

 

Pull apart the root mass. The tubers are (or strive to be) horizontal; break them apart between adjacent tufts of foliage. Replant everything immediately, watering well, so the tubers can settle in for the Summer, re-establishing their roots in preparation for next year's activity.

Any (other) quirks or special cases?

I've read that if you want to help established Eranthis clumps self-seed more widely, run a string trimmer over the colony when its foliage has just faded but is still erect. In addition to cleaning out the dead foliage, this whirling trimmer filament flings the small seeds far and wide but (so I read) without buzzing them asunder in the process.

Downsides

Although winter aconite is easy to divide, and immortal when established, it can be frustrating to launch new colonies if you can only rely on retail sources. They sell the tubers in the Fall, when the tubers are likely to be quite dried out and, often, only spottily viable, instead of "in the green," in late Spring, as is done by snowdrop specialists. Alas, Eranthis seed isn't a good alternative to commercial purchase of the tubers: the seed doesn't remain viable very long. The best solution? Be alert in late Winter and Spring to gardens with established colonies and, with your most sincere and fawning charm, befriend the owners in hopes of being able to dig up some smaller Eranthis colonies in late Spring. If a garden club member has (or, more likely, has inherited or purchased) a property with widely-distributed colonies of Eranthis, could that owner not consider a fundraiser of in-the-green Eranthis divisions?

 

The strong yellow of the flowers is as disruptive in the muted brown-and-gray Winter landscape as that of forsythia, and is just as difficult to integrate. Because Eranthis can be so enthusiastic and enduring and, especially in Zone 6 and colder, there are fewer other choices for reliable Winter display, the understandable tendency is to accept this plant's eagerness and enthusiasm on its own terms—to look at the glass as half full. Seeing a thriving colony of Eranthis on a lousy Winter day inevitably inspires an inner monologue along these lines: "Wow, that little plant has huge flowers, and it's in full bloom now, when Winter is nowhere near through. Who cares what color it is? That little guy is kick-ass!" See "Plant partners," above, for ways to think about partnering Eranthis, as well as specific plants to consider. See "Variants," below, for other forms of Eranthis that have white flowers—but are also much, much, harder to source.

Variants

Eranthis 'Guinea Gold' is a hybrid of E. cilicica and E. hyemalis; its flowers are reported to be notably larger than those of either parent. E. x tubergenii is another cross between the same parents, and is reported to flower earlier. The flowers of E. hyemalis 'Flore Pleno' are double. Those of 'Grunling' (German for greenfinch) have a green stripe on the outside of the petals. Despite the name of 'Schwelfelglanz' (German for sulphur brilliance) this cultivar's flowers open to the palest yellow. These cultivars are all bracingly expensive.

 

There are eight species of Eranthis, including E. hyemalis and E. cilicica. The flowers of E. albiflora are, indeed, white, as are those of E. pinnatifida, E. stellata, and E. sibirica. The flowers of E. longistipitata are yellow, as are those of E. lobulata. These other species are rarely available, and often more challenging. Few gardeners will need to wander into the genus farther than E. hyemalis and its cultivars.

 

Availability

On-line. The yellow forms of Galanthus are available only, and only sometimes, from specialists such as Carolyn's Shade Gardens and, via printed catalogue and old-school written correspondence, from Hitch Lyman, The Temple Nursery, Box 591, Trumansburg, NY  14886.

Propagation

By division of the tubers. See, above, "How to handle it: Another option—or two!"

Native habitat

Eranthis hymalis is native to Europe. 

 
 
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