A few years ago while I was visiting a friend in late winter / early spring, we decided to take a stroll through her garden to see if anything was beginning to show its face in the still unsettled weather.
Hellebores were just beginning to open, which I expected, and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) were beginning to bloom, although their white showing wasn't impressive since we had just spent the winter looking at a white ground. What I wasn't expecting was a burst of brilliant yellow that made me feel as though a ray of sunshine had erupted on an otherwise dreary day.
This burst of yellow was the result of my friend's successive plantings of winter aconite, or Eranthis hyemalis. It's no wonder I was taken with these bright yellow flowers that reminded me of summer because they are members of the same family of plants that bring us buttercups, Ranunculaceae.
The bright-faced little blossoms are common in English gardens although they originate from the woodlands of Italy and southern France. I am not surprised they are often found in English gardens and not just because they prefer moist soil, but because they have an Elizabethan-type collar of leaves just below the one-inch flower. Even so, they have made their way to American gardens, particularly where the winters are cold and by February, we start to look for any sing of spring we can find.
In the wild, winter aconite grows below deciduous trees where it gets filtered early spring sunlight. Preferring cooler weather and rich soil, aconite flowers are perfect food sources for bees that are just awakening from their winter sleep. Growing from small tubers planted just an inch or so below the soil, aconite naturalizes by dropping its seeds.
They look best when planted in masses and equally look lovely when planted with contrasting white snowdrops, which bloom around the same time.
Winter aconite is a small plant, about two to four inches tall. It generally takes a couple years to get established but successive plantings each year for two or three seasons can help it fill in, forming a yellow carpet in early spring. This plant doesn't mind the snow and will continue to bloom right through it. As the leaves fill out on the trees, the plant will die back to the soil and wait until next winter.
When the winter is mild, this plant can start blooming as early as January. During colder, harsher winters, it might take a bit longer. Although it can spread naturally from seeds, the fastest way to propagate winter aconite is to dig up clumps of the established tubers, separate them and plant the sections around and under deciduous trees.
On the heels of winter aconite is another tiny spring plant that I am quite familiar with, grape hyacinth. Not to be confused with the large, pastel hyacinths with the intoxicating fragrance around Easter time, grape hyacinth is not a hyacinth at all. Muscari, or grape hyacinth, is a hardy little beast that tends to show up my gardens wherever they choose. I don't ever remember planting them, but I can count on finding clusters of these small but bright purple spikes here and there throughout the yard and the gardens. Previously listed in the Lily family of plants, botanists have moved grape hyacinths to Asparagaceae. It doesn't take rocket science to figure out these plants are probably related to asparagus, generally the first vegetable to come up in spring.
When I'm roaming the gardens in the fall, I always find their rosettes bursting with slender, dark green leaves with the recognizable white stripe down the center. A dead giveaway for the grape hyacinth that will show up in that spot the next spring.
Some people complain because they aren't where they should be but I love finding little surprises like the grape hyacinth when I go searching for garden growth in spring.