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Winter aconite: flowering time, care & propagation

Winter aconite is one of the first early bloomers to appear in our gardens, parks and forests at the end of winter. Here you can find out everything about planting, caring for and propagating this spring-flowering perennial.

Yellow winter aconite flowers
Alongside other early bloomers like crocuses and snowdrops, the yellow flowering winter aconite plants are harbingers of spring [Photo: Jeanie333/ Shutterstock.com]

With its bright yellow flowers, winter aconite adds a welcome touch of colour to otherwise dull gardens during the winter months and ushers in early spring in the phenological calendar. In this article, we look at some of the different varieties of winter aconite and give tips on planting and caring for this early blooming perennial.

Winter aconite: flowering time and characteristics

Winter aconite (Eranthis), also sometimes called winter hellebore or winter wolf’s bane, is a genus made up of eight different species that belongs to the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. It is a non-invasive plant that originates from southern Europe but has become naturalised across other parts of Europe and in the UK.

Yellow winter aconite flowers peeking through snow
Winter aconite is one of the first spring-flowering plants to bloom

Winter aconite tubers shoot green to bronze coloured stems through the snow in early spring, normally between February and March. The yellow or white flowers usually have six petals and form at the end of the stem, encircled by leaf-like bracts. More leaves grow after the plant has flowered. After pollination, the fertile species produce four to eight 1.5 cm long fruits which ripen and open from May onwards to spread their seeds. Rain helps to disperse these seeds. In summer, the plant dies back and survives in the soil as a bulb until the following spring.

Are winter aconite plants bee-friendly? Winter aconite is particularly bee-friendly as it provides some of the first food of the year for wild bees and bumblebees. Much like pansies (Viola), winter aconite attracts lots of different insects to its flowers with its intense, sweet and fresh scent and its rich supply of pollen and nectar.

Bee on yellow Eranthis flower
Winter aconites are bee-friendly early bloomers

Eranthis species and varieties

Here are some of the most beautiful species and varieties of Eranthis plants:

  • Eranthis hyemalis: This species of winter aconite is native to Southern Europe and the most widespread species in our gardens. It grows to a height of 5 to 10 cm, flowers as early as February and has pale yellow flowers with close-set bracts. The cultivar Eranthis hyemalis ‘Schwefelglanz’ has pale yellow flowers. Eranthis hyemalis ‘Noël Ayres’, on the other hand, has double, sterile green and yellow flowers. The golden-yellow flowering variety ‘Winterzauber’ (meaning ‘winter magic’) starts blooming as early as December or January and is one of the earliest flowering varieties.
  • Eranthis cilicica: This winter aconite species grows to about 5 to 10 cm tall, has a finely divided leaf crown and a bronze stem. The yellow flowers bloom from March onwards and are larger than those of E. hyemalis.
  • Eranthis x tubergenii: Sterile hybrid between E. hyemalis and E. cilicica that can only be propagated by division. The winter aconite varieties ‘Guinea Gold’ and ‘Glory’ have bronze-coloured hairy leaves and yellow flowers.
  • Eranthis pinnatifida: This white-flowering winter aconite is found in Japan and grows from 5 to 15 cm tall. This species’ flowers are white with blue-violet stamens. The leaves are long and deeply lobed. Native to eastern Siberia, E. sibirica is another white-flowering species with 10 to 15 cm long flower stems that bear large, white flowers with light green stigmas. Unfortunately, both white eranthis species can be quite hard to get a hold of.
White and blue-violet Eranthis pinnatifida flowers
The Japanese winter aconite, Eranthis pinnatifida, has white flowers and blue-violet stamens [Photo: backpacking/ Shutterstock.com]

Planting winter aconite: where, when and how

Winter aconite plants are typical forest and woodland edge dwellers and feel at home under woody plants and deciduous trees. Their seeds can quickly spread over a wide area, forming a beautiful carpet of flowers. These plants prefer sunny to semi-shaded areas with fresh, well-drained and moderately fertile soil. Slightly alkaline, not too heavy loamy soils are ideal.

Winter aconite in pots need a good water supply as the substrate dries out more quickly in containers than in the ground. Place the potted Eranthis plants somewhere cool in winter, but protect them from frost. Towards the end of the winter, when the first shoots appear, you can place them out in the open again. You can mix some clay such as bentonite into the soil to increase its water storage capacity.

Growing winter aconite from seed

Winter aconite seeds require cold stratification, meaning they need a longer cold period of temperatures between -4 and +4 °C in order to germinate. For this reason, it is best to plant Eranthis seeds in an empty space in the garden straight after they have ripened in summer. Sow them 0.5 to 1 cm deep in the soil and, in the coming winter, the cold will break the seed dormancy. The first seedlings will appear as early as January but note that it takes about three years for winter aconite plants to bloom for the first time.

Tip: As well as cold weather, a layer of snow in winter helps to soften the outer shell of the seeds and accelerates germination.

Planting winter aconite bulbs

Eranthis prefer to be planted in groups of 3 to 20 plants at a planting distance of 5 to 20 cm. Once established, the plants will spread by self-seeding. The two species Eranthis hyemalis and Eranthis cilicica in particular are successful self-seeding plants and can reproduce all by themselves. As sterile varieties do not self-seed, plant them closer together at up to 400 tubers per m² to create a dense carpet of flowers.

Ideally, plant the small, hard winter aconite tubers between September and October. Pre-swelling the tubers in warm water for a few hours beforehand can help to kick-start the process. Plant the tubers about 3 to 5 cm deep at a distance of around 5 to 20 cm. The tubers are hardy and can remain in garden beds all year round, so there is no need to dig them up.

Seven Eranthis bulbs
Winter aconite tubers are best planted in autumn [Photo: Kazakov Maksim/ Shutterstock.com]

Caring for winter aconite

Eranthis plants are extremely easy to care for as they survive in the ground for most of the year. They do not need pruning and you should not hoe between plants as this can damage the tubers. If the spring is dry and warm, water your winter aconites regularly.

These easy to care for early bloomers have a low nutrient requirement. However, if planting in poorer soils, work a little compost or potting soil into the area beforehand. After a few years in light, sandy soils, the plant’s nutrient supply may be exhausted. You can tell when this happens as the plants will display reduced flowering, and in the case of more acute nutrient deficiencies, leaves may start to yellow prematurely. In this case, apply a plant-based slow-release fertiliser, such as our Plantura Flower Food, over the area from March onwards when there is no risk of ground frost, or when repotting winter bulbs into pots. Water the plants after application. This granular fertiliser releases the nutrients slowly over a few months.

Plantura Flower Food
Plantura Flower Food
With a long-lasting effect, for healthy soil, child & pet friendly

Propagating winter aconite

Depending on the species, Eranthis plants can be propagated either by seed or by division. Together with the fruits, seeds can be harvested between April and May and dried for sowing at a later date.

Sterile hybrid varieties can only be propagated by division. This is done by dividing the plant with a spade just after flowering and planting the daughter plants elsewhere. You can also transplant the hard, small tubers individually in autumn from September onwards.

Close-up of winter aconite seeds
The seeds of the winter bulb are dispersed by rain [Photo: Karin Jaehne/ Shutterstock.com]

Is winter aconite poisonous?

Like all members of the buttercup family, winter aconite is indeed very poisonous as all parts of the plant contain cardiac glycosides. For this reason, it is important to keep children and pets away from these attractive plants. Typical symptoms of poisoning include nausea, vomiting and cardiac arrhythmia or even cardiac arrest.

After winter, early-flowering plants pop up, bringing a splash of colour to our otherwise dreary landscapes. To discover more early-bloomers, check out our article on 15 of the most beautiful spring-flowering plants.

Regina

I studied horticultural sciences at university and in my free time you can find me in my own patch of land, growing anything with roots. I am particularly passionate about self-sufficiency and seasonal food.
Favourite fruit: quince, cornelian cherry and blueberries
Favourite vegetables: peas, tomatoes and garlic