DESPITE recent poor weather, the season moves on and seasonal plants play their role. One such is the winter aconite, the botanical name of which is eranthis, neither name easy to remember. If it were named 'golden spangles', or some such catchy common name, it might be much more widely known, and it deserves to be.
Snowdrops have the accolade of being in the vanguard of spring flowers but the winter aconite often appears beside snowdrops, and the combination of pure crystalline white and shining golden yellow is superb. Both are low-growing plants, not much more than about 15cm tall.
The winter aconite is a member of the buttercup family as its broad, cupped, yellow flowers attest. The flowers are bowl-shaped to encourage early-season pollinators, which are scarce, to visit. The inside of the petals is shiny to reflect sun-heat onto the insects and make them more active.
Occurring naturally in south-east Europe, eranthis is completely hardy and quite at home here. It likes damp ground under deciduous trees, thriving where the ground stays damp into early summer. Being a member of the buttercup family, it is related to the wild lesser celandine that flowers from February.
The lesser celandine is a very common wild flower in damp places, hedgerows and gardens, commonly mistaken for buttercups because it has bright yellow flowers of the same size, but celandine is a low-growing plant with heart-shaped leaves.
There are cultivated forms of lesser celandine, notably 'Brazen Hussy', which has deep-brown leaves that contrast nicely with the yellow flowers. There are also white-flowered forms of celandine and some kinds with double flowers, although these look a bit unnatural, which they are.
Eranthis is ideal for growing in places where celandine thrives and it is much more decorative, having larger flowers of prettier shape. The eranthis flowers have a ruff of leaves around, and under, each flower and the bright green sets off the yellow flowers beautifully. The tubers of eranthis are inclined to dry out quickly and they should be planted as soon as possible after lifting. Buy them while fresh in the shop, or lift them while still green after flowering in spring, and replant them right away.
By lifting and dividing each year for a few years, the clump can be made to spread out and the effect is remarkable on a sunny day in late winter. By summertime, the eranthis foliage will have withered away, the tubers gone dormant.