Not to be confused with its famously poisonous relative Aconitum, but belonging to the same family, the winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is much tamer. It emerges alongside snowdrops in early spring and is one of the first ‘bulbs’ to flower in the garden.
Winter aconites have a ground-covering habit, with feathery foliage similar to a wood anemone and buttercup-like flowers. These clump-forming perennials are striking and desirable since very little flowers at the same time. Flowers emerge first, quickly followed by foliage. It looks great when planted en masse in a lawn or beneath the partial shade of trees or shrubs in a woodland situation. In a formal bed they are best planted at the front where they can be easily admired.
At RHS Harlow Carr Eranthis hyemalis has been planted extensively along the Winter Walk rubbing shoulders with snowdrops, colourful winter stems and evergreen foliage. Larger groups of bulbs can be seen in the old winter garden and throughout the woodland.
The Eranthis is in fact a knobbly tuber. Tubers easily dry out and need hydrating before planting. Soak tubers in a bucket of water – the moisture is essential for germination. Once planted, winter aconites quickly naturalise and spread. Established clumps respond well to being lifted just after flowering while in leaf. After flowering, Eranthis forms papery seed capsules, which can easily be collected and dispersed.
Aconites flourish in any reasonably fertile soil, in full sun or below deciduous trees and shrubs. They do particularly well in chalky soil. Good drainage is essential.