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At this time of year garden magazines and blogs are chock full of articles about snowdrops. Even Adam Pasco has written one and it takes a lot for our sainted editor to stir himself from his Caribbean hideaway at this time of year. However, there are no articles about that other winter stalwart, the aconite, and I intend to rectify that right now.
Eranthis hyemalis is the egg yolk-yellow flower we see clustered around trees in February. It is shorter than its chum the snowdrop but has wider, more interesting leaves that are shaped a bit like baseball mitts. They are best planted in a warm and sunny site as the flowers only open properly on fine days; in the past week or so when temperatures have reached 10°C or so they have been flaunting themselves in their full glory.
All parts of the plant are extremely poisonous and have been used in a number of known (and probably unknown) assassination attempts over the centuries. Also, it is said that, as one of his Twelve Labours, Heracles had to capture Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the gates of Hades. When he succeeded and dragged the beast into the light, the dog (unsurprisingly) was unhappy and slathered saliva all over the ground. This saliva was so toxic that it poisoned the soil, from whence sprang aconites.
Why, you might ask, does the aconite flower at this time of year? It is taking advantage of light levels in deciduous woodland, which are highest in late winter, before the trees come back into leaf. As the year draws on the plant ‘aestivates’: it disappears back into the ground for the summer as the leaves appear on the trees and the shade becomes too dense.
In short, the aconite is a fine and easily grown plant to cheer the winter. Plant tubers in autumn or buy plants ‘in the green’ in early March.
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