Plant of the Month: January 2022

Eranthis hyemalis (L.) Salisb. – Winter aconite

by Peter Williams

As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens” is an old country saying that reflects the fact that, after the winter solstice that marks the shortest day and the onset of astronomical winter, the temperature falls as daylength slowly begins to increase.  It is at exactly this time that the cheerful golden flowers of Eranthis hyemalis make their very welcome appearance as the harbingers of spring. 

Fig.1 Bright and very cheering winter aconites flowering in January

The winter aconite is a tuberous herbaceous perennial belonging to the Ranunculaceae family.  It is one of eleven species in the genus Eranthis and is a native of deciduous woodlands in southern Europe from France to the Balkans.

Both the scientific and common names of this lovely small European native have been surrounded by contradiction and confusion.  The botanical name is a mixture of Greek and Latin and translates as the ‘spring flower of winter’. Gerarde in his Herbal of 1597 referred to the species as Aconitum hyemale with the common names, Winter Woolfes bane, Hibernum and Winter Aconite. He reports that “It groweth upon the mountaines of Germanie: we have great quantitie of it in our London gardens”.

 Gerarde thought it was closely related to, and hence just as toxic as the extremely poisonous monkshood or wolfsbane, Aconitum napellus.   He thought this because of the similarity of the leaf shapes and fruiting bodies (follicles).  

Fig.2 – Helleborus hyemalis illustration from 1787 in The Botanical Magazine

On its toxicity he wrote “This herbe is counted to be very dangerous and deadly: hot & drie in the fourth degree”.  Whilst winter aconite does contain a range of potentially harmful alkaloid poisons, it is not considered a dangerous plant.  No cases of poisoning have been recorded in humans but I did come across the case of an unfortunate 12year-old dachshund with the propensity for digging that became very ill after excavating, and then eating, winter aconite tubers!

Later botanists noted that winter aconite and hellebore flowers had very similar floral structures and both produced seeds in follicles. It was thus named Helleborus hyemalis by Linnaeus.  It appears with this name in the first edition of The Botanical Magazine in 1787 (the forerunner of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine).  However, recent genetic analysis has shown that the diminutive aconites are more closely related to the statuesque Actaeas (formerly Cimicifuga) than to the hellebores. 

The currently accepted botanical name for winter aconite – Eranthis hyemalis (L.) Salisb. records a further name change in 1807.   The attribution, (L.) Salisb. after the generic and species names, indicates that the Linnean name, Helleborus, was changed to Eranthis by Richard Salisbury.  Salisbury was the son of a Leeds cloth merchant and considered to be a disreputable character in botanical circles. He personally underwent a name change because he was born Richard Anthony Markham but changed his name to Salisbury in an attempt to inherit a fortune from a distant relative of his mother.

Fig.3 – Structure of the flower E.hyemalis ‘Schwefelglanz’ – a pale yellow selection

Each flower stem bears a collar of green photosynthetic bracts that maximise energy capture to fuel the growth of the plant and production of large seeds that are shed in April/May.  All above-ground plant parts die back by June to leave summer-dormant underground tubers.

Fig.4 – Seeds held in open follicles ready for dispersal in late spring

Seeds shed in one season germinate in spring the following year and under favourable conditions, carpets of aconites become quickly established.  There does not, however, seem to be a consensus about what constitutes favourable conditions for aconites and some gardeners report that they are difficult to grow.  I have found that winter aconites grow well on my acid, sandy soil and thrive both in areas where they receive very little direct sunshine (like the north sides of an evergreen hedge) and in open, south-facing areas in full sun. They also grow well on the heavy, chalky slopes of the Yorkshire Wolds so appear to be indifferent to soil pH and texture.  The one feature shared by the areas in my garden where they thrive is that they are very dry in summer.  Perhaps the key to initial establishment is to plant potted, actively growing specimens or freshly dug dormant tubers that have not become dry.  Where plants have become established, care should be taken not to disturb emerging seedlings by spring cultivation and tidying operations if the carpeting effect is desired. 

Fig.5 – Just as flowering is ending in mid-March, seedlings from the previous year are germinating. Here they are spreading into the drive.

Weed control is probably best achieved by use of autumn mulches rather than spring hoeing.  This approach is particularly suitable where winter aconites are established under deciduous shrubs where their presence in spring is a great bonus. With my neglectful approach to gardening, Eranthis self-seed freely and establish well in the untidied woodland beds and have successfully invaded the neglected margins of my gravel drive.  

There have been a number of selections of Eranthis hyemalis that exhibit distinctively paler or richer colour forms than the norm and the sulphur-yellow variety ‘Schwefelglanz’ is often seen (Fig.3).  Garden centres now frequently offer E. cilicica which is very similar to E. hyemalis but is slightly later flowering and originates from Iraq and Turkey.  Hybrids of E. cilicica are becoming more common as is the attractive but sterile variety, Eranthis x tubergenii ‘Guinea Gold’. But for those amongst us who really enjoy a challenge, the beautiful but very difficult Asian species, Eranthis pinnatifida might be worth considering in an alpine house.

Fig.6 – left, E. ‘Guinea Gold’ and right, E. pinnatifida
Fig.7 – Winter aconites and snowdrops naturalized near St Ethelburga’s church Great Givendale in the Yorkshire Wolds


Images courtesy of Peter Williams

Swallows and Celandines

What possible link could there be between celandines and swallows? The answer is stranger than you could possibly guess!

Chelidonium majus

It was whilst reading Fletcher’s Folly, one of H.L.V. Fletcher’s delightful ‘books of gardening gossip’ that I came across this very odd fact; for thousands of years people genuinely believed that swallows used the celandine to cure blindness in their chicks.

My first thought was that this couldn’t be so from a timing perspective, let alone anything else, because the celandine flowers in late winter and has pretty much disappeared by the time the first swallows are heralded in The Times (do they still do that?), let alone have any blind chicks in need of a cure. This however, was simply ignorance on my part – the celandine in question is the Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus), which flowers in summer and is a member of the poppy family, not the Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna subsp verna) which belongs to the Ranunculaceae.

In fact, the Greater Celandine gets its name from the Greek word for Swallow, Chelidon and one of its common names is the Swallow Wort.

The idea that Swallows would actually use this herb to cure their blind chicks, if indeed that is a problem for them, goes way back. This is what Dioscorides wrote in the first century AD:

It seems to be called Chelidonia because it springs out of the ground together with ye swallows appearing, & doth wither with them departing. Somme have related that if any of the swallowes’ young ones be blinde, the dames bringing this herbe, doe heale the blindness of it.

Even the great Aristotle seems to have believed that the Swallow could perform this amazing restoration, but by the time of John Gerard’s Herball (1597), disbelief is growing:

It is called Celandine, not because it then first springeth at the coming in of the Swallows, or dieth when they go away: for as we have said, it may be found all the year, but because some hold opinion, that with this herb the dams restore sight to their young ones when their eyes be out: the which things are vain and false; for Cornelius Celsus in his sixth book doth witness, that when the sight of the eyes of divers young birds be put forth by same outward means, it will after a time be restored of itself, and soonest of all the sight of the Swallow, whereupon (as the same author saith) that the tale or fable grew, how through an herb the dams restore that thing, which healeth of itself: the very same doth Aristotle allege in the sixth book of the History of Living Creatures: The eyes of Swallows (saith he) that are not fledged, if a man do prick them out, do grow again, and afterwards do perfectly recover their sight.

In fact, all swallows are born blind and develop their sight as chicks, which ismaybe where the idea that their sight needs to be restored originates. I doubt that their eyes, once plucked out, would regrow, though. If you are wondering at this point, why anyone would want to pluck out the eyes of a small bird, you may be horrified to learn that it was common practice until quite recently to prick out the eyes of caged songbirds, in the belief that it made them sing better. But swallows?

Aristotle, although regarded as the father of scientific study, did make mistakes. He said that men have more teeth than women and that flies have four legs. In both cases a bit of simple counting would have been a relatively simple task. So great was the esteem in which he was held that authors repeated that ‘fact’ that flies have four legs for a thousand years. It is therefore no great surprise that the belief that Swallows cured their blind chicks with Celandine survived so long, given how hard it would be to make sure.

Celandine, even though it is an irritant, was believed to be a herb of value for restoring clarity of sight.  Some went even further with their claims for the plant, this is from the 16th Century  Book of Secrets, supposedly written in the 13th Century by St Albertus Magnus:

If any man shall have this herb, with the heart of a Mole, he shall overcome all his enemies, and all matters In suit, and shall put away all debate. And if the before named herb be put upon the head of a sick man, if he should live, he shall sing anon with a loud voice, if not, he shall weep.

It has been suggested in the past that the whole association between Swallows and Celandines arose by chance, through a similarity of their names.

Perhaps that sits more comfortably with our modern view of the world, but if you should spot a Swallow wiping the eyes of her chicks, possibly through the lens of your webcam, I’d say a letter to The Times would probably be in order.

Brian Hackett

Image courtesy of the HPS Image Library

Plant of the Month: December 2021

Still something to see!

by Sue Gray

I imagine that all of us try to have something of interest in the garden throughout the year, but achieving this aim, particularly through the winter months, can be a real challenge.  So much of this is weather dependent and, as each succeeding year seems to throw up new challenges, it is hard to know which plants can be relied upon to ‘do their stuff’ at any given time.

Nandina domestica ‘Firepower’

This, of course, is where foliage comes to the fore and evergreen shrubs, particularly I feel variegated ones, are a real boon.  Variegated holly and elaeagnus not only brighten the garden but the foliage is very useful in floral arrangements.  In recent years there have been a number of new varieties of Nandina domestica introduced that put on brilliantly coloured leaves; perhaps the most popular variety is the aptly named ‘Firepower’.

Latterly I have become more interested in, and appreciative of, ferns, particularly the evergreen forms.  I have to admit that this is largely as a result of bringing some of the lovely examples from our friend David Barnes’ garden.  I am totally useless when it comes to putting names to any of them, I just enjoy all the varying patterns on the fronds.

Of all the plants in my garden at this time of year, the one that I would not want to be without is Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ AGM.  The Gardeners’ World website sums it up brilliantly: ‘Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ is a fantastic winter-flowering shrub, bearing densely packed clusters of rose, pink or blush white, sweetly scented blooms’.

The flowers usually appear from September onwards while the leaves, which flush to mahogany, are still on the branches, and persist on the bare wood right through winter to spring.  Even on a cold winter’s day you can detect the fragrance, and if brought into a warm house, they provide a lovely perfume.

Snowdrop shoots

Finally, while bracing ourselves for all that winter has in store, it is good to be able to look forward and one sign of hope are these shoots of Galanthus elwesii AGM – a gift from a generous HPS friend.  Always the earliest to appear in my garden, who knows, the flowers might just make an appearance in time for Christmas.


Images courtesy of Sue Gray, except close-up of Viburnum bodnatense ‘Dawn’ – HPS Image Library