Does soil pH matter to Eranthis?

– Posted in: Plant info

Image of emerging eranthis flowers
When I was in high school, my mother handed me a mail order bulb catalog and told me I could pick something out to plant. (I guess I had done all right by the daffodils and she wanted to encourage me further.) I was ignorant, but I knew I wanted the earliest blooming bulb I could find that had yellow, sunshiny flowers. By reading the catalog copy and looking at the pictures, I knew winter aconite, or Eranthis, was it.

I planted them on either side of the front walk, under the yews that stood sentry at the front door. They came up that first spring, and every spring after that, earlier than the daffodils. My mother never forgot that I planted them, and when I left home she always mentioned in a letter or phone call that they were blooming, and they reminded her of me.

Beginner’s luck.

I have tried to grow those little flowers for thirty years now without any success until this year. I have blamed the voles (though I can’t find justification for this in any of my reference books or online). I have blamed my clay soil, but they are supposed to like moisture. I have read, in fact, that they shouldn’t be long out of the ground, and if the tubers dry out they die. Old House Garderns sells tubers dipped in wax to avoid this problem. But they seemed kind of pricey to me.

Last fall, however, Breck’s sent me a catalog with a coupon for $25 worth of free bulbs–no strings attached. So what did I have to lose? I bought some winter aconites, soaked them overnight as directed, and planted some on the north side of the house, and some on the south side of the house. The photo above is from the north side of the house. There is no evidence that I ever planted any on the south side, and they should have been well up before their northern brethren showed their faces. (Update: one showed up on the south side on 4/2. More blooming 4/7. Funny that they were later than the cold side of the house.)

Nevertheless, I felt pretty pleased with my success, until I saw Barbee’s winter aconites. Oh, my goodness! They put my little front walk patches to shame. Entangled’s comment about her acid soil made a light bulb go on in my head. I also have acid soil, but my parents’ place was undergirded with limestone, just as Barbee’s land is. Could that be the difference?

A quick check in American Horticultural Society A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants revealed that Eranthis hyemalis “quickly forms large colonies, particularly in high-alkaline soils.” There are two species of winter aconite commonly sold, E. hyemalis and E. cilicica. I have no idea what I grew back at my parents’ place, and since Barbee inherited her wonderful sheets of bloom, I’m sure she doesn’t know which species she has either. (But we can guess, can’t we?) Breck’s sold me E. cilicica, so maybe I have a chance.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

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Bill Plummer April 13, 2008, 4:34 pm

Lois’s comment about her 20 year lag prompts me to relate my tale of viola selkirkii, one of which appeard in my patio years ago. for something like 20 years it bloomed alone until one year it proceeded to grow in almost every crack. Go figure!

Lois April 13, 2008, 9:54 am

Hi Kathy,
Interesting about the aconites. I planted some so many years ago (?20), I can’t even remember. All that ever came up was one set of leaves that MIGHT have been them. This year — a bunch of them bursting with color!

Dawn April 11, 2008, 12:52 am

One thing I miss about living in the North is the variety of beautiful bulbs that are available; though I’ve never grown eranthis. Your mother gave you a lovely gift encouraging you to try any bulb you wanted.

Jennifer April 10, 2008, 7:51 pm

That’s great that your mother encouraged you to plant. Its wonderful how plants, scrubs and trees can remind us of the people in our life and create enduring memories.

tedb April 9, 2008, 6:25 pm

So I was about to write off the eranthis I had planted a few years back but today I found several patches coming up. I’ve had snowdrops in bloom for a couple weeks new, and even a few crocus. I just assumed they would be up with the other early bloomers.

I noticed Brent and Becky’s Bulbs sends them out early, along with fall crocus and such.


jodi April 9, 2008, 1:34 am

They’re a funny plant, all right. They didn’t care for my cold wet clay soil, which is also acid, and I’ve not tried them again. However, in a garden in Wolfville, a few miles away, there are MASSES of them. Masses! Just like in the descriptions. Oh well. I feel better in my non-success knowing that they’ve given you fits too.

Kathy Purdy April 8, 2008, 6:44 am

Bill, I am starting to think it is not soil pH myself. Once upon a time these bulbs were collected in the wild, and I think some lucky gardeners got a strain, or race, that is especially prolific. And when you have this prolific race growing in conditions it likes, then you have sheets and sheets of them. I think I have an especially prolific race of snowdrops.

Bill Plummer April 7, 2008, 9:42 pm

I have an oak-hickory-pine woods. Sevaral large patches, including some that escaped into my neighbor’s yard come up through inches of oak leaves. Another patch is in rocky soil between my driveway and a stone wall. Still another is under a Cornus kousa. They have spread into the woods and even into the cracks of my flagstone patio. I think it is something other than acid/basic soil.

Kim April 7, 2008, 4:40 pm

Hmm… so. My first aconite bloomed today. I did soak them extra-long (like, 3 days, in successively fresh water) to get rid of any wrinkles in the bulbs. Maybe that’s the key, more so than sweet soil, and mentioned in the comments above?

Kim April 5, 2008, 1:07 pm

Hmm. Well, if I don’t see mine EVER show up, I am definitely going to blame my acidic soil. Mind you, I’m one of *those* people who advocates testing your soil but who never has herself… but if blueberries grow okay here, then I’m guessing I don’t have sweet soil! 🙂

kerri April 4, 2008, 2:19 pm

I’d like to try planting aconites, but I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t just stick to something less dicey. Let’s just say, if someone offers me a handful, I’ll be happy to try them, but I doubt that will happen, since I haven’t seen them around much, and certainly not in large quantities.
I hope you’ll enjoy the Spring Fling Kathy! I’ll look forward to hearing all about it.

Kelly April 3, 2008, 6:44 pm

I had a neighbor when we lived in Virginia who supplied me with shovels-full of aconites in the green (and snowdrops, too, by the way) – our soil there was acidic and clay – but time was on her side: the plantings were 40+ years old.

Congrats on the piece in Horticulture, Kathy!

Don April 2, 2008, 10:03 pm

This is the kind of bulb where a British writer will always tell you to just ask a gardening friend to fork you up a growing patch of them from their garden. Grrrr.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter April 2, 2008, 12:23 pm

I can’t recall which species of Eranthis I have (if I ever knew). I can’t even remember where I got them. My soil is close to neutral or very slightly acid. Although I seem to have only a few this year, I have found quite a few seedlings out there now that will be blooming size in a couple of years. Part of the problem seems to be that a clump of Phlox divaricata has spread over them and may be smothering them. It might be time to move them to an area where they’ll have a bit more room.

tedb April 2, 2008, 10:45 am

My soil is neutral to alkaline sandy loam in western WI and I’ve struggled with them.

Two and a half years ago I decided to try agin with bulbs from Van Engelen and they bloomed well the next spring and the year after. This year though they haven’t made any appearance yet. Snowdrops are blooming, crocus are emerging, maybe the aconites are just late.

I happened to have Louis Beebe Wilder’s book ‘Adventures with Hardy Bulbs’ next to me when I turned on my computer. She’s from NY and grew Eranthis on “quite acidic” soil. Here is what she says about failures:

“One often hears of many disappointments where plantations of Winter Aconites have been attempted, and the reason is almost invariably that the tubers have been kept too long out of th ground. It is imperitive to secure them early, in July or August, and to put them in the ground at once. If planting is delayed until the usual September or October bulb-planting season, virtue will have gone out of them and few will sprout.”

Good luck trying to get one of the big dutch merchants to ship something in July. I guess I’ll just keep trying and hope they eventually catch.


entangled April 2, 2008, 8:12 am

Aha, acid clay is exactly the kind of soil I’ve been trying to grow these in for 20+ years. I always thought mine were E. hyemalis, but I planted them so long ago I don’t even remember where I bought them. Now I wonder if the survivors are actually E. cilicica. I’ll have to take a closer look at them.

Kathy Purdy April 2, 2008, 7:07 am

Shucks. I probably ought to stick with snowdrops. They seem to grow for me like eranthis do for Barbee.

Don April 1, 2008, 11:55 pm

You’re right; eranthis likes neutral to alkaline soils, and the Brits (who know about such things) say eranthis multiplies much faster in alkaline soil, and sometimes dies out in acid clay. Soaking the tubers before planting does help (I put them in moist sand for a few days). But there’s no substitute for getting fresh tubers from a good supplier. It does look like you have cilicica. The problem I sometimes run into with E. hyemalis and cilicica is that my soil is so loose that these little bulbs sometimes heave out of the ground in late winter, so I’ve taken to putting some small rocks on the surface.

MA April 1, 2008, 10:44 pm

I don’t know about eranthis, but I have to tell you I LOVE the snowdrops on the header on this page. Lovely.