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.
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.