The perky little charmer above is winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), the earliest of the spring-flowering bulbs to bring joy to my garden. It tries to beat the witch hazels ‘Diane’ and ‘Arnold Promise’ to be the first to make a February bow, and sometimes the poor little thing (it’s only about three inches, or 7 1/2 centimetres, high) has to shove aside a blanket of snow to make its presence known. Maybe that’s why so many people overlook it.
Why is it that the toughest and most dependable plants are often ignored? The great-great-great-grandparents of these little bulbs were given to me decades ago by my Uncle Ren, my garden mentor, and they’ve moved with me to two gardens. I didn’t appreciate the plant at first because the flowers seemed small and insignificant, and they were too easy to grow, like weeds. Back then I hungered after the showier things that got into garden magazines, like named varieties of giant crocuses and the impressively exotic Fritillaria imperialis, even if it did smell a little skunky. I expect the real reason I looked down on winter aconite was that I was a garden snob.
Thankfully, I outgrew that stage and winter aconite has won my respect, if not my outright admiration. As Uncle Ren told me when he gave me the bulbs, they thrive almost anywhere–in thin rocky soil, rich loam, in meadows, in the shade of domineering trees. Yet the bulbs (more correctly, corms or tubers) don’t want to be boss. They spread gently, forming a yellow and green carpet. The buttercup-like blossoms (the plant is a member of the Ranunculaceae family) face upward and are surrounded by a joker-like ruff of serrated green leaves. After the flowers die back, the leaves expand into a lush carpet that lasts a couple of months, then the leaves have the courtesy to disappear and make room for other flowering plants.
I do nothing special for my winter aconite—it grows in our sandy soil in a south-facing bed with several perennials still sleeping underground, enjoying morning-to-noon spring sun. I forget they’re there in summer, after their leaves die back. They’ve been multiplying gradually, from seed scattered when the pods dry and open. If I wanted to I could propagate them further by digging up the small tubers right after the plants have bloomed, snapping them gently into pieces and replanting them right away.
But the tubers are cheap enough–well under $10 for a package of 10, and easily available from bulb suppliers such as GardenImport. This fall it will be time to plant more, this time in another part of the garden.