Winter aconite is a small perennial plant that grows only 3 to 6 inches tall with flowers that are 1 inch across.
Winter aconite is a little clump forming perennial with bright yellow buttercup-like flowers. It produces small knobby tubers and forms large colonies, but the individual plants are only about 3-6 in (7-15 cm) high and wide. The cup shaped flowers have (usually) six petal-like sepals and are around an inch (2.5 cm) across. (The true petals are modified into tiny nectaries and hardly visible.) The flowers float above a calyx-like ruffled bract consisting of three finely dissected fernlike leaves. The bract looks a lot like the ruff that well dressed Europeans wore around their necks in the 17th century. Basal leaves (which emerge after the flowers) are borne on long petioles and are barely more than an inch (2.5 cm) long. By the time summer arrives, all traces of winter aconite have disappeared. The cultivar ‘Glory’ has large lemon-yellow flowers.
Eranthis hyemalis is native to Europe from southern France, across Italy and east to Bulgaria, where it grows in damp, shady woodlands. It has become widely naturalized outside its native range in Europe and in parts of north-eastern North America.
Culture Light: Start your winter aconite bulbs where they will get full sun to dappled shade in late winter and spring. Full shade in summer, when then plants are dormant is OK. Moisture: Winter aconite likes a humus-rich, moist soil that does not dry out completely. Even when dormant in the summer it needs a little moisture in the soil. Winter aconite does best in soils that are more alkaline than acidic. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 7. Propagation: The bulbs (tubers, actually) can be separated to start more plants. Plant the tubers about 2 in (5 cm) apart and 2 in (5 cm) deep. Don’t let the tubers dry out too much before replanting. Winter aconite will self seed and naturalize, forming large colonies when conditions are favorable. Plants started from seed may take 2-4 years to flower, whereas those started from pieces of tuber will flower in their second year.
Winter aconite forms masses of bright yellow flowers at the time of year when not much else is happening in the garden.
Winter aconite is at its best massed under deciduous trees and shrubs where carpets of their bright yellow flowers will light up the drab and dreary days of late winter. The flowers bloom before the leaves emerge and are often seen poking through the snow, demanding an end to winter, even before the crocuses awake. Their propensity to naturalize and spread under deciduous trees is a plus.
There are just seven species of these little buttercups, all native to Eurasia. In many places winter aconite blooms at around the same time as a similar looking relative commonly called fig buttercup or lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria).
All parts of winter aconite can cause stomach upset if ingested and the sap may irritate sensitive skin.