Eranthis provide colour in the early winter or spring with their cheery yellow cup-shaped flowers and foliage ruffs of fresh green. They can cope with dappled shade so do well under trees, under deciduous shrubs in a border and can also naturalise in grass. They also look good in pots and with the few tender species this is the ideal way to keep them.
They are part of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, and most of the species have a buttery-yellow flower, although there is a white form. There are seven species of Eranthis, which arise from knobbly brown tubers, and they are found in southern Europe and east across Asia to Japan. The leaves form a whorl of dissected leaves under the cup-shaped flowers that only fully expand when the flowers are nearly finished. They persist for a few months before dying down in late spring.
E. hyemalis Award of Garden Merit (AGM) is a European native with a golden-yellow flower, known as the winter aconite, and is the one most commonly found in gardens. They are completely hardy and emerge in January in the south-east of England. Several varieties have been bred from hyemalis, including double forms and those with flowers in different shades of yellow and even apricot.
The RHS places the formerly separate species E. cilicica within the hyemalis Cilicica Group because many consider it indistinguishable from hyemalis. But the Alpine Garden Society states that E. cilicica's flower stem is shorter and the leafy bracts more finely dissected. They also point out that E. hyemalis does best on an alkaline soil in light shade and dislikes drying out in summer, whereas E. cilicica prefers a neutral soil and will cope with a warmer site.
The crossing of the two species led to the sterile hybrid E. (approx equal to) tubergenii and includes popular variety 'Guinea Gold' (AGM), which is taller and larger than its parents. It has long-lasting fragrant flowers that are a rich golden-yellow and narrow bronzy-green bracts.
E. pinnatifida is a Japanese species, quite different from the rest. It produces dainty white flowers with blue stamens on short stems. It needs excellent drainage in raised peaty beds. It does best in a greenhouse and can take years to get established.
Eranthis generally like a humus-rich, moist but well-drained soil. The typical species hyemalis and its cultivars prefer alkaline soil but others can prefer more neutral conditions. The aspect should be full sun or partial shade. Because of this they do well under trees, in lawns and in borders where they get some sun. The leaves begin to die off as the tree or shrub canopy increases. Eranthis tend to form large colonies quickly.
Eranthis are best planted directly in their desired position because the tubers are in danger of drying out. If you do buy tubers, soak them well before planting. To propagate, divide in the spring after flowering or sow seed when ripe and place in a cold frame. You will get flowers within two-to-three years. Pests to watch for include birds, which peck the open flowers, and aphids, which disfigure with honeydew and sooty moulds.
What the specialists say
- Rob Potterton, partner, Pottertons Nursery, Lincolnshire
"For me, Eranthis are often the first sign of the approaching spring and warmer days ahead. They are easy, tough plants that produce relatively large, bright flowers from January to early March.
"I have two favourites. First, E. hyemalis 'Flore Pleno', a variety with double yellow flowers. As a nurseryman they are enjoyable to grow because of the challenge to propagate either by bulb division or raising from seed.
"My second favourite is a recently-acquired selection, originally selected in Germany, E. hyemalis 'Schwefelglanz'. The flowers are straw coloured (pale creamy-yellow), distinct and quite unusual.
"Eranthis are usually obtained in their dormant state in September or October. On receipt, we recommend soaking them in warm water for about two hours and then planting immediately. They need a moistureretentive, well-drained soil, usually beneath deciduous trees or in a north facing position."
- Dr Paul Christian, owner, Rare Plants, Wrexham
"I love Eranthis and there have been a lot of new introductions recently from German and Scandinavian breeders. As well as E. hyemalis 'Grunling' with the green markings on the flowers, there is also 'Grunspecht', which is a semi double. Then there is 'Schlyter's Orange', which is a later-flowering variety with orangey flowers. Another subtle orange - you only really see the orange tinge when they are against bright-yellow Eranthis - is 'Aurantiaca'. As yet, I would say there are no true oranges - none with Jaffa-peel colour.
"Another one I like is 'Winter's Zauber'. It has very large yellow flowers, about two-and-a-half times the normal size. It's normally in flower at Christmas but not this year. It doesn't produce many offsets so that's why there isn't much of it about yet.
"But my personal favourite is 'Schwefelglanz', which is in flower now. It's beautiful, with pale, almost primrose-yellow petals that open with a slight hint of apricot."
- Ben Wighton, assistant head gardener, Lincoln's Inn, London
"Eranthis are bulbs that cope well with some shade so they are often planted beneath trees or in a border. Pairing them with deciduous shrubs is ideal because they take advantage of the light in the early winter when they emerge and then die down as the canopy thickens.
"They also make excellent pans in a cold frame or alpine house, particularly 'Guinea Gold', which forms a nice clump of uniform, large, golden-yellow flowers.
"Eranthis don't like being dried out so they are best planted in the green in late spring/early summer in a moist site. You'll soon get them spreading to form large colonies."
Species and varieties
- E. cilicica is often considered indistinguishable from E. hyemalis but it has a larger, deeper-yellow flower and leaves that are more finely dissected. It emerges later and the stem and leaves have a bronze tinge. Flowers from February to March.
- E. hyemalis AGM (H4) is a European native. It produces golden-yellow flowers from January to March that stand above dissected fresh green foliage.
- E. hyemalis 'Flore Pleno' is an attractive double-flowering form of E. hyemalis. It is rarely available.
- E. hyemalis 'Grunling' is a recent introduction from Germany that was selected for its large yellow flowers with distinct green markings.
- E. hyemalis 'Orange Glow' has a pale-orange flower, subtly distinct from the normal acid-lemon flowers. It came originally from Copenhagen Botanic Garden and usually comes true from seed. Rarely available.
- E. hyemalis 'Pauline' is a paleyellow form of the common aconite. Not a vigorous plant and rarely available.
- E. hyemalis 'Schwefelglanz' is a vigorous clone with large, straw/apricot coloured flowers over darkgreen foliage. The name means "sulphur glow".
- E. 'Noel Ayres' is a rarely-available double form with greenish-yellow flowers. Named after a head gardener at Anglesey Abbey.
- E. pinnatifida is a Japanese species that is quite different from hyemalis, because it has small, white flowers with blue stamens. The foliage is deep-green/grey and finely cut. It either forms a whorl just below the flower or large decorative leaves on non-flowering shoots. The tubers are very small.
- E. (approx equal to) tubergenii is a hybrid between E. cilicica and E. hyemalis that produces large, shiny, golden-yellow flowers on tall stems. Relatively easy to grow. Recommended for light dappled shade in woodlands.
- E. (approx equal to) tubergenii 'Guinea Gold' AGM (H4) is a strong variety with big, golden-yellow glossy and fragrant flowers over bronze-tinged divided leaf ruffs. Flowers from January to March. Sterile.
- E. 'Zitronenfalter' is a German selection with lemon-yellow flowers. Not widely available.
Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library