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Eranthis hyemalis

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The winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis is another early spring herald.  Perhaps not so common as it should be, but where it gets established - often under deciduous trees – it can spread to produce a spectacular carpet of bright yellow.  The picture in Fig. 1 (left) was taken in a small urban park where the winter aconite has established itself under a large horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum). 

The foliage is relatively short lived: it appears in late January, flowers in February, and usually by the late spring it has disappeared under grass or rough vegetation.

E. hyemalis is a member of the Ranunculaceae (the buttercup) family, although the resemblance of the flower in form and colour to the creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) is largely co-incidental because the Ranunculaceae includes flowers of a wide variety of forms and colours. 

The native habitat of Eranthis stretches right across the Eurasian landmass from the British Isles to Japan, and is also now widely cultivated in N. America.

Close up, (Fig. 2, right) it is slightly odd in that the flower is almost sessile (i.e. no stem) and large enough to seem out of scale with the whole plant.  But given that the whole plant is only about 3”/75 mm high, you won’t really notice unless you’re prepared to get down on your hands and knees in the winter mud.  It grows from a small tuber which may throw up several flowering shoots.

All parts of the plant are poisonous, though it doesn’t present a significant hazard because it doesn’t look very appetising and in any case it reputedly tastes vile (evidently whoever tasted it lived to tell the tale).  It should not be confused with ordinary Aconite, Aconitum napellus, known in the UK as Wolf’s Bane or Monkshood, which is very poisonous and should on no account be tasted.

The best way to propagate Eranthis is from the tuber.  But you'll need to be patient, it's quite slow to establish and spread.