Winter Wolf’s Bane

Initially, the Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) was known as the winter wolf’s bane, and placed in the Aconitum genus, due to the similar properties, such as its toxicity, it shared with monkshood, or wolf’s bane (Aconitum napellus).

Nowadays, winter aconite shares a family with monkshood under Ranunculaceae, but has been relocated to the Eranthis genus.

Winter aconite’s common name is a relic of its former link in the Aconitum genus

Winter aconites are native to southern Europe, from France, Italy, and the Balkans. By 1596, it was introduced to English gardens, and since then the plant has established colonies in the wild. Here, they prefer moist and well drained soils, meaning they grow most abundantly in deciduous forests. These aconites can also be planted in flower beds, tubs, and even rocky gardens.

E. hyemalis has rich green-coloured, palmately lobed basal leaves, which form a rosette on top of the soil. Palmate is a term used to describe a type of leaf compound with three or more lobes or leaflets which all grow from the same point at the end of a stem.

Each upright stem on the winter aconite plant supports a bright yellow, cupped flower, growing 2-3 cm above a collar of deeply lobed stem leaves. Their flowers are said to have a sweet honey scent.

Other common names: winter wolf’s bane, winter hellebore

Winter aconites are ephemeral, meaning they have short life cycles. Their full life cycle only lasts about 2-3 months, during which the leaves emerge in late January, followed by setting flowers with seed pods. After these few months, the plant disappears underground to rebuild its strength, so it can rebloom the following winter.

As stated above, E. hyemalis blooms much earlier than other flowering plants. This allows the plant to take advantage of the maximum amount of sunlight available without the leaves of the canopy (of deciduous forests) blocking the light. Also, blooming early allows for little competition against other plants for sunlight and nutrients. Winter aconites are a great source of nectar for early emerging pollinators, and they share this responsibility with only a few other flowering plants.

The winter aconite is actually poisonous to humans and many other animals, including deer and rabbits. All parts of the plant contains cardiac glycosides, that affect the heart, and if ingested in large quantities, can cause irreparable heart damage.

E. hyemalis has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Golden Merit in 1993, and the Golden Plant Pick in 2012.