As winter starts to wind down and there are early hints of spring in the air (and in the garden), my eyes are always glued to the ground on my walks for signs the first spring-flowering bulbs are starting to emerge. Winter aconite is one of those seasonal treasures that pops up first, sometimes even before the snow has had a chance to melt. The cheerful, yellow flowers are a most welcome site and burst of color after a long drab winter. They even arrive a wee bit earlier than snowdrops and crocuses!
Before I start to explain how to grow winter aconite and where to plant it, it’s important to note that the entire winter aconite plant is poisonous, including the tubers, so avoid planting it if you have pets or small children.
Hardy down to about USDA zone 4, winter aconite originates in the woodlands of the Balkans, France, and Italy, but has naturalized in other parts of Europe. This sunny sign of spring has a few names—winter hellebore, Éranthe d’hiver, and buttercup (because it is part of the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family). The botanical name is Eranthis hyemalis. “Eranthis” comes from the Greek word for spring flower and the Latin word “hyemalis” means “wintry” or “belonging to winter.”
Reasons to grow winter aconite
I’m used to admiring winter aconite in a couple of gardens I pass on late-winter walks. Every year if I happen by at the right time, I’m crouching down to capture the little harbingers of spring. But just last year, I stepped around the side of my garden shed and there, almost behind it in an out-of-the-way spot, I discovered the cheerful buttercup-like blooms, stretching up above the leaf litter—a mini carpet of winter aconite. I was delighted that I have my own early-spring bloomers. And I didn’t even have to plant them!
Those bright yellow flowers sit atop leafy green bracts that frame the blooms like a little collar. Depending on the light and temperature, the flowers will remain tightly closed. In that position, they really look like little yellow dolls with a collared shirt! When they do open their faces towards the sunlight, if you look closely, there is a ring of nectaries and stamens around the center of the flower.
The aforementioned toxic characteristics, make this spring ephemeral resistant to hungry rabbits, deer, squirrels, and other rodents. And if you’re looking for a little spring magic under a black walnut tree, they apparently tolerate juglone, as well.
The flowers are not poisonous to pollinators, however. It’s actually a super-early food source for any foraging pollinators that have ventured out early in the season. Anywhere I spot winter aconite, it’s always buzzing with bees.
Growing winter aconite
If you’d like to plant aconite, place your order when you’re purchasing other fall bulbs. Ordering earlier in the summer helps to ensure your favorite bulbs are in stock. Most companies will then ship your order close to when they’re ready to plant, so they’re not hanging around a garage or in the house. Winter aconite is actually grown from tubers, not bulbs. The tubers look like little dried balls of mud.
Because these plants have woodland origins, they prefer friable, humus-rich soil that holds a bit of consistent moisture, but still drains well. And apparently they will really thrive in high-alkaline soils. Winter aconites can be a bit fussy in drier soils. Choose a site that gets full sun in the early spring, but then once perennials and the tree canopy fill in, the plants should get partial to full shade as they die back completely and go dormant over the summer months. Leave the fall leaves as they provide the perfect mulch. The organic matter adds nutrients to the soil, as well as a bit of winter insulation.
Before planting, soak tubers in warm water for about 24 hours. Plant them about two to three inches (5 to 7.5 centimeters) deep and three inches apart in the early fall.
The plants only grow to be about five inches (13 centimeters) tall and spread about four inches (10 centimetres) in width. They may naturalize and self-seed over time.
Where to plant winter aconite
Looking back through my photo albums over the years, I have snapped photos of winter aconite at the very beginning of March and at the very the end of March. I suppose the bloom time depends on the conditions the winter brought. Depending on where you live, it could even make an appearance in January or February.
Keeping in mind the plant’s favored growing conditions, add tubers to garden borders, under shrubs, or even in an area where it’s hard for grass to fill in. Because they don’t grow to be very high, winter aconites make an ideal groundcover, especially if they start to naturalize. And, if possible, plant them where you can enjoy them! Though mine are behind a shed, I have to deliberately pay them a visit. Maybe next spring will be the year that I divide and plant some in a spot that’s got a little more foot traffic in my garden so I can admire them more easily.
To divide plants if they start to naturalize, wait until after they’ve flowered to gently dig them out of the soil and plant in their new home.
Be sure to remember where your winter aconite patch has been planted. The leaves die back, so by the time you’re planting other annuals or perennials in the later spring, you don’t want to inadvertently dig them up!
Find more interesting spring-flowering bulbs to plant!
- Deer-resistant bulbs for spring color in the garden
- Unusual flower bulbs for your garden and how to plant them
- Alliums for the garden: The best long-blooming allium varieties
- Plant perennial tulips for dependable blooms year after year
- Dig in daffodil bulbs