A Wonder of Nature

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to carolyn@carolynsshadegardens.com.  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis

One of the first plants to bloom in my garden is winter aconite.  It usually starts blooming in February and continues into March.  I treasure its cheery yellow flowers with their shiny green collars because they brighten what can otherwise be a cold and dreary time of year.

When my original winter aconite plants got this big, I was thrilled.

Winter aconite is in the buttercup family and is native to Europe.  It is about four inches tall and prefers woodland soil in deciduous shade.  It wants to be cool in the summer but not too dry, and it will not tolerate wet soil.  It grows in zones 3 to 7.  Winter aconite is a bulb (technically a tuberous rhizome) and goes dormant when the weather gets hotter.  Some sources state that it is poisonous to humans, but there have been no reported incidents.  It is deer resistant and black walnut tolerant.

When the patch started to fill in like this one I was ecstatic.

You can order winter aconite as a dried bulb.  It is recommended that the bulbs be soaked overnight to increase success.  Despite soaking, I never got more than one or two bulbs to grow into plants.  I tried several times.  Then a friend of mine gave me some growing plants (thanks Julie!), and my little patch of winter aconite began in earnest.

After several years, my patch looked like this.

Winter aconite naturalizes well once you get the initial plants going.  The best way to spread it is to collect the seeds and sprinkle them where you want them.  If you don’t collect the seeds, they tend to germinate around the base of the mother plant.  My winter aconite has been so successful that, after ten years,  I was able to sell growing plants in my snowdrop catalogue (although next year I need to give the patch a “rest”). 

Winter aconite covers this much ground in my woodland.

Now we get to the “wonder of nature” part.  Right down the street from my plant nursery is a public park owned by Radnor Township (Pennsylvania, US) called Ithan Valley Park.  The property was originally an old Main Line estate.  During the early 1900s, it was owned by the botanist John Evans, and he maintained an arboretum of exotic plants there.  Evidently his collection was amazing, but today few of the original plants remain.

Winter aconite in Ithan Valley Park

At some point John Evans planted winter aconite on his property.  The conditions there proved to be ideal with the cool, moist woodland soil and deciduous shade that winter aconite loves.  Today Ithan Valley Park is covered with sheets of winter aconite every February and March.  There is so much yellow that I think it must be visible from outer space.  It truly is a wonder of nature that I want to share with you.

The winter aconite in the park grows thickly.

Trail entrance, Ithan Valley Park

The stone wall of the old estate is in the background.

To truly appreciate the spectacle, you need to visit in person (I apologize to my non-local readers).  Ithan Valley Park is located at 642 South Ithan Avenue, Bryn Mawr, PA  19010, at the intersection of South Ithan and South Roberts Roads.  Time is of the essence because the winter aconite will only be blooming for a few more days.

I am linking this post to the Winter Walk-off 2012, which is a challenge by Les at A Tidewater Garden to share what can be seen within walking (or biking) distance of your home.  Every photo in this post was taken at Ithan Valley Park, 8/10 of a mile from my house.


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86 Responses to “A Wonder of Nature”

  1. This makes my little plant seem pretty insignificant… I’m anxious to have it start seeding about… wonderful spring time photos… thanks for sharing them, Larry

  2. I love these Winter Aconites, its such a very long time since we had them in the garden and reminders like this make me want to plant some more. In our woodland area I thought they had found their way back but on closer inspection I realised that it is a weed, cant remember the name of it. Sort of suits the area and I will see how it is this year. Oh just came back to me (Celandine)

    • Alistair, Winter aconite is not to be confused with lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, but it sometimes is. Celandine is the worst weed on my property, impossible to stop once it gets established. I would advise removing yours immediately and disposing of it in the trash (unless it behaves differently in Scotland). Carolyn

  3. Carolyn the park is spectacular, thanks for sharing,

    I am so glad you said how hard it was for you to get winter aconites started in your garden, I bought some 8 or 9 years ago and planted them on the dge of the trees that were already here, I didn’t know about soaking them so didn’t, I never saw one, now I will look around and see if I can buy some ‘in the green’

    your patch is beautiful and natrual looking, Frances
    ps some of the names in your area are of Welsh origin or sound very Welsh,

    • Frances, In the US, winter aconite is hard to find in the green, and I am not sure why. Most of the names in our area are Welsh and here is why from Wikipedia: “The Main Line area was first resettled by Europeans in the 1600s, after William Penn sold a tract of land, called the Welsh Tract, to a group of Welsh Quakers in London in 1681. This accounts for the many Welsh place names in the area.” Carolyn

  4. Amy Olmsted Says:

    Winter aconites and pretty much all very early blooming bulbs or perennials are quite amazing! Coming through partly frozen ground, enduring heavy frosts and random weather extremes only to shake it all off and continue blooming! Gotta love plants like these!

  5. Dear Carolyn, How very beautiful! Another plant to add to my list of ‘must haves’. P. x

  6. I’ve not tried winter aconite before. I have an area of deciduous woodland at the bottom of the garden, but it gets very dry in summer. But after seeing your photos, I might just give them a try.

  7. Wow that is quite a sight. I love these little flowers as their blooms are so cheery. I planted them a few years ago here but they have not done well at all but I sure do like the cheerfulness of them. So many!

  8. I’ve been seeing pictures of these, and I just love them! Too bad they don’t grow in my zone. “Likes cool summers” means they would hate my area! But, I enjoyed seeing this carpet of beautiful yellow.

    • Holley, I think you have to place the cultural conditions in perspective. Winter aconite grows well here in the Philadelphia suburbs where it is in the 90s all summer. They like to be planted in a location that is cool and moist in comparison to the surrounding areas—a microclimate. Carolyn

  9. Carolyn I love winter aconite but it is not up in my garden…snowdrops are up here and there but most plants are content to stay hunkered down still…too nippy here…what a stunning sight of these bulbs naturalized

  10. I was smiling while reading your great post. Smiling because sunny yellow flowers are somehow happy! but also because I had a client who was desperately trying to clear her woodland garden of this plant, she considered it a weed just because it grew so well! Oh well, it takes all sorts…… as they say

  11. When I was a kid my mother would encourage us to gather the seeds of the winter aconites and scatter them wherever we wanted to, since these little plants will easily grow in a herbaceous border, under an apple tree or wherever, and this meant that we had aconites all over the place. A cluster here, a clump there.

    (Needless to say I’ve scattered aconite seeds throughout my own garden. Some survive, some don’t, but it’s always worth a shot, I think.)

    • FG, Your mother knew the best use of winter aconite—here and there and everywhere for pockets of cheerfulness in late winter—and that is what I am trying to do on my own property. Carolyn

      • It’s a great seed to give to kids, I think, because let’s face it: EVERY border or flowerbed has room for some winter aconites! (And with three kids? They did get sown in every bed…)

        Oh, and by the way: Your pictures of the Ithan Valley Park remind me of the way our local deciduous forests look in April/May when anemone nemorosa covers the forest floor. I must put this in my calendar so I remember to get out there and enjoy our own local wonder!

      • FG, I would love to see photos of European wood anemone covering a forest. That is a plant that I collect—I may have 15 varieties—I really love it. Carolyn

      • It’s a stunning sight when you come across a piece of woodland where the ground is covered in white!

        Here is a picture I found online; it’s taken in the forest just half a mile from my garden:

        -Where winter aconites tell us that spring is on its way, the white anemones tell us that spring is definitely here and summer is just around the corner!

      • Wow, I wish my wood anemone looked like that, just gorgeous. As I always say, no designed garden can compare with what nature has created. thanks for posting the photo. Carolyn

      • And now that I’m up in my garden I can see the proof of my claim that we were allowed to scatter aconite seeds all over the garden as kids; nearly all of the perennials that I’ve transplanted from my mother’s garden have a small patch of winter aconites growing amidst the spent stems of last year’s flowers!!! Just a few, but still… There are aconites in 8 different spots in my garden, and surely they will spread over time.

        (Also, I scattered aconite seed throughout the garden last year, so more should bloom eventually!)

      • FG, I am happy for your that you are getting all the winter aconite with your mother’s perennials and from the seeds you have sprinkled. It makes me wonder though, what if you didn’t want it? It seems to have some of the tendencies of an invasive plant. Carolyn

      • But who wouldn’t want it??? It appears before anything else and then dies back before the rest of the garden gets going…

        Mind you, when it self-seeds it tends to be just around the original plant as the seeds are a) quite substantial and b) apparently not very attractive to wildlife. So it spreads slowly and in a manageable way, should one be inclined to manage it. (I’m not!)

  12. Your drifts make my one little plant look absolutely pathetic! Will follow your advice and try sprinkling seed when they are formed, maybe eventually I will have drifts like yours!

  13. What a colorful treat for winter, looks like a natural tapestry!

  14. patientgardener Says:

    I have winter aconite which I bought as a plant and I have noticed this evening that for the first time since planting 3 years ago the plant is spreading. Still only 3 flowers but lots more leaf. I collected seed from it last year and they have just germinated having taken a year to do so. I have also a pale yellow form which I have grown from dry bulb and I am hoping that this might establish too in a different part of the garden

    • Helen, Now here is an amazing coincidence. The pale yellow winter aconite in the UK called (I think) ‘Lightening’ was originally propagated from a pale yellow form found in Ithan Valley Park, the park in the photographs. The world is a very small place. Carolyn

  15. The photos remind me of bluebell woods in the UK. Do you have winter aconites first and then bluebells after ?

    • B-a-g, Our equivalent of your native bluebells would have to be Virginia bluebells. Our woods were once full of sheets and sheets of all kinds of native plants like bluebells and trilliums. Unfortunately, all that has been destroyed in my area by rampant development. Carolyn

  16. Hello Carolyn,
    These are stunning images of the impact of naturalised aconites. By coincidence we’ve just ordered some in the green to have a go.
    I wondered whether the woodland that they’re planted under is a diverse range of trees, or just a few species and if so, which? And whether they do under conifers, or just deciduous trees?I also enjoyed your comments about the Welsh tract, and Welsh Quakers, as well as the point about the mix with snowdrops en masse. I also find it tricky to get good photos of large drifts of snowdrops….they never seem to do justice to the display, But your aconites…WOW
    Thanls for an interesting post,
    BW Julian

    • Julian, I have large drifts of snowdrops on my own property and have tried photographing them again and again. I just can’t catch how beautiful they are in person. There are many different kinds of trees in the park because it used to be an arboretum. Here at my house, winter aconite is spreading quite nicely at the base of 100 plus year old London plane trees. The authorities say deciduous shade so I think they do need light in the spring. Carolyn

      • Hello Carolyn,
        Thanks for this reply, and the earlier one with your favourite 5 snowdrop cultivars. I mentioned this because Avon Bulbs in the UK have just conducted a poll of their customers’ favourites..(not been published yet). I think for now mine would be G.Atkinsii, G. Bess, G. Benhall Beauty, G. Cedric’s Prolific and G. Washfield Warham. Don’t know if these are all available in the U.S.A. Well done again for this post extolling the merits of aconites,

      • Julian, Of your list, I think only ‘Atkinsii’ is available in the US. There are only two nurseries in the whole US that sell snowdrops in any variety, and one of them is mine. You asked me to list my 5 favorites for garden worthiness not just my 5 favorites. I would probably include ‘Wendy’s Gold’ and ‘Lady Elphinstone’ in my 5 favorites (for today) not taking into account vigor, etc. Could you please send me the results of the Avon poll when they come out? That would be very interesting. Carolyn

      • Hello Carolyn,Thanks for the reply, and well done to you for being one of the 2 USA snowdrop cultivar nurseries….. its funny given the current mania over here that they’re not ( yet?) more widespread over with you.I sense a challenge/opportunity ahead for you? I’ll certainly send you a list/link when the AB’s favourite snowdrops list is made public. My favourite 5 list was really on the basis of garden worthiness as well….. but I’m beginning to realise that as with lots of plants what may be garden worthy in wet Wales, might not be so great in other drier regions…e.g.Eastern England where rainfall is about a quarter of our 70 inches. I guess that climatic variations including rainfall are even more variable Stateside…,
        best wishes

  17. How truly beautiful!! This is a carpet of true joy to see! The wonders of spring!! Enjoy!!

  18. Absolutely delightful! How lovely! I wish I could get there to see them in person…or get my hands on some for my own yard. 😉

  19. Barbie and Aimee, I have actually missed the display for the last couple of years so I am thrilled that I forced myself down there to photograph it this year. Carolyn

  20. I enjoyed all those Winter Aconites so much, Carolyn, especially as I can’t grow them; “cool” and “Summer” just don’t go together here.

  21. Wow, those cheerful winter aconites really are a wonder! Recently someone who has not followed my blog before was trying to identify my moss path and asked if it were a stream of winter aconites. Looking at your trail entrance photo, I can see how he asked that.

  22. Janine Avis Says:

    Dear Carolyn,
    The park at the end of Roberts road is a lovely place. Have you noticed the fragrance of the aconite? Very subtle, but wonderful this time- anytime of year.
    And soon…the Scilla will appear!
    Regards, Janine

  23. I’ve never seen winter aconite in bloom before. Now I have – virtually. I do love carpets of flowers. Trout lilies bloom like that in places in the woods in central N.C.Thanks for sharing. It looks like the plant would do well in the conditions I have, as long at it had full shade from summer heat.

  24. Thank you Carolyn for this lovely post. Winter aconite has long been a favourite plant of mine and you’ve reminded me that I have yet to plant it in our new garden.

  25. That is quite a show. Very pretty when plants populate like that.

  26. Thank you for participating in my Winter Walk-off, especially with such a wonderful flower. I love when things naturalize with abandon, especially if it is something that is only around a brief time then disappears. That makes them kind of magical. I don’t believe these would be hardy for me, so I will have to enjoy them from afar.

  27. These are adorable! I never heard of winter aconites before.

  28. Really it looks gorgeous and very very beautiful

  29. Marguerite, Donna, Jeannine, and Gardenfl, Less varieties of plants but in greater quantity is often the best way to go as illustrated by the way nature operates when left to its own devices. A large patch of winter aconite can’t be beat. Carolyn

  30. What a pretty and happy sight to behold. Despite our warmish winter I have yet to see any early activity. Soon soon…

  31. Great article about an underutilized bulb, which I showcased myself not long ago since it is also deer resistant. It is very popular in my native England, typically blooming in January before the common snowdrops. It is so low to the ground that it really does look like a carpet of gold. Thanks for the memories.

  32. Mmmm, gorgeous, that is the way t grow these bulbs. I have tried a few times myself, using the dried bulbs (soaked of course). I wish that they were sold in the green in North America like the UK. Why are our commercial growers not selling these, and snowdrops, scilla, etc.? There is certainly a market for is, as you are finding out. Lady Bonham Carter used to have aconite parties at her house in England and give them away to all her guests. Certainly the best way to start them in your garden.

    • Deborah, It is kind of a vicious circle. There is no demand so growers (except Carolyn’s Shade Gardens!) don’t grow these plants. And because the plants are not available gardeners don’t know about them or ask for them. At my nursery, I try to educate my customers about unusual plants and not just throw them out there for sale. Also shoppers can see the plants growing in my display beds which really helps. Maybe someday I will have enough winter aconite to have party like Lady BC. Carolyn

  33. I have seen these in garden beds but never in such a display across the forest floor…stunning! They are really a great way to add interest in the forest and in garden beds. Thanks for this idea!

  34. What a happy site!

  35. I recently came across a carpet of winter aconite lining a trail in the Crum Woods of Swarthmore, part of the Scott Arboretum, and was delighted.

  36. Love to see all the cheery yellow, Carolyn! I can only imagine how beautiful that would be in person. If I’m ever in Pennsylvania, I will try to remember to check it out.

  37. Beautiful! I must start a patch of this. I remember Buttercups blooming close to my home in Wisconsin when I was a little buttercup myself. Just loved walking through the waves of aconite!

  38. I’ve heard of this plant before but have never seen it. Beautiful!!

  39. Just wondering, does the park allow dogs on leashes?

  40. Carolyn, you always introduce me to such delightful plants. You know of course I’ll have my eyes wide open at the local nurseries in case they have it! Lovely!

  41. I have never seen this but it sure is cool looking. Reminds me of bluebells in the effect… wrong season and different color but for some reason reminds me.

  42. Valerie Gillman Says:

    I have a question-when you sprinkle aconite seeds is it better to do so on the leaf mulch, or bare ground?

  43. very useful info Carolyn as they look as though they should be easier to cultivate than they apparently are. Only took much notice of these last year in an early Spring garden. The ranunculus connection makes sense as they remind me of Celandines – “scalloped splashes of gold, on the side of the ditch” (DH Lawnrence)

  44. Wow – i think I told you that I have never managed to get a single aconite to grow, ever, having always purchased them as dry little bulbs. These displays are just fantastic! How splendid it is when plants find the right spot and just settle in and spread…

  45. […] Township, Pennsylvania) that horticulturalist Carolyn of Carolyn’s Shade Gardens calls “a wonder of nature.” Carolyn writes that “There is so much yellow that I think it must be visible from […]

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