Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Power Of Winter Aconite

Eranthis hyemalis - Winter Aconite
When crocuses bloom, another blossom joins them cheerfully declaring that spring is near. It's called Eranthis (pronounced "ee-RAN-thiss") or Winter Aconite. There are 8 species in the genus. Most are native to Asia, but only one is commercially popular and it, E. hyemalis (pronounced "hi-EM-ay-liss"), is native to woodlands in southern Europe from France to Bulgaria. Bright yellow blooms like buttercups en mass light up forest floors beneath bare arborical canopies.

But Eranthis has a dark history which it shares with an unrelated herb, Aconitum. Both are commonly called "Aconite" and "Wolfbane." Both are poisonous. The word "aconite" is from the Greek meaning "without dust", referring to the easy victory that an athletic champion might enjoy. Aconite, then, is invincible in its potency. The name, "wolfbane", refers to their former use in ridding the countryside of those fearsome beasts. Perhaps meat was laced with bits of tuber and left out as bait. As though this practical application was not enough, legend had it that aconite could also repel werewolves if carried in one's purse. Better still, the bearer could wrap a tuber in lizard skin and not be seen at all! Well, the dangerous properties of both aconites were also put to benevolent use as medicines. But, then as now, they were only to be used by trained medical professionals, licensed exterminators and people who had to walk home after dark.

One wonders, however, why Eranthis and Aconitum are both freely available as ornamental perennials. Clearly, it is because gardeners are gentle people, without malice, and do not associate with bad company.

Eranthis is superb for container and rock gardens, low bulb borders, and naturalizing. Don't expect a handful of tubers to make much of an impression; they should be planted in large quantities. Because all parts of the plant are toxic, be cautious if planting them where children may dig and nibble them.  Deer won't eat them.

Winter Aconite thrives in USDA climate zones 3 through 7, in full sun to partial shade. Plant in well-drained, humusy garden soil that is consistently moist.

Before preparing your planting site, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office. For a nominal fee, they will send the sample to a lab for analysis. The analysis will normally be sent to you through the mail. If the test results seem somewhat cryptic and difficult to understand, don't hesitate to call your County Agent for explanation.

Planting begins in September or October, depending upon your area. Unless you are naturalizing them in the lawn, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Though they like moist soil, Eranthis tubers do not like soggy conditions.

A fine all-around practice for bulbs and such is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area of bulb garden. Repeat the application when growth appears, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

Before planting, soak the tubers over-night in tepid water. Plant them 2" to 3" deep. Depth is measured to the bottom of the hole. Recommended plant spacing is 3". Unless snow or rain fall is inadequate, irrigation should not be necessary.

Eranthis requires very little maintenance. Plant them and forget about them. But they will chase winter away and brighten your days when you need it most.

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