Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Winter Aconite /Eranthis

Eranthis hyemalis

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is one of the earliest bulbs to bloom in spring. This plant in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), native to Asia Minor and Europe, has small flowers that resemble tiny buttercups. The solitary, yellow cup-shaped flowers are surrounded by bright green bracts that look like a collar around the blossom. Eranthis is growing on forest floors and using the sunshine available below the canopy of trees before the leaves come out; the leaves die off when the shade from tree canopies becomes dense, or, in dry areas, when summer drought reduces water availability. They are popular ornamental plants grown for their winter or early spring flowering.

All parts of the plants are poisonous, though the very acrid taste makes poisoning a low risk.If you have small children or pets that are likely to dig in the garden you may not want winter aconite in your yard as the entire plant, but especially the tuber, is quite poisonous and may cause nausea, vomiting, colic attacks and visual disturbances.

This ground-hugging plant works well in rock gardens, flower beds and woodland gardens. The flowers first appear in the sunniest spots, just before the first snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) begin to bloom. They can look charming together planted in the border or naturalized in the lawn. Winter aconite is good for naturalizing under trees and large shrubs. They combine nicely with hellebores and echo the flower color of Forsythia and witch hazel (Hamamelis). Because of their small size, they are best planted in groups.

When growing in conditions it likes, winter aconite reproduces easily and spreads readily to form large colonies – almost to the point of being invasive. Lift clumps while still green to keep under control, if desired, or when overcrowded. To propagate, divide the clumps after flowering or collect seeds to sow in the fall.

In Greek and Roman mythology, Medea tried to kill Theseus by poisoning him by putting aconite in his wine, in that culture thought to be the saliva of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the Underworld. Hercules dragged Cerberus up from the Underworld, while the dog turned his face away from the light, barking and depositing saliva along the path. The saliva hardened in the soil and produced its lethal poison in the plants that grew from the soil. Because it was formed and grew on hard stones, farmers called it 'aconite' (from the Greek akone, meaning 'whetstone').

Photo Forsthaven 2009/2010: grethe bachmann

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