Snowdrops and Aconites

The winter may have been one of the snowiest and coldest for a long time but it hasn’t made the slightest difference to the displays of snowdrops and aconites which are now at their best.

There has been a great upsurge of interest in the different varieties of snowdrops in recent times. To those of you who just thought there were singles or doubles, it may come as a surprise to learn that there are more than 500 named cultivars derived from the 19 or so species found in the wild. All are variations on a theme, basically white petals with green (or occasionally yellow) markings. The Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder lists 251 as being available in the UK and prices for the more unusual ones start from a few pounds per bulb to large sums of money for the very rare. Personally I am quite happy with the simple purity of the common single type and am also aware of the difference, namely the ‘frilly petticoat’, of the common double one.
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Now people get very excited by upturning the flowerhead so they can see a slightly larger speck of green on the bloom or scrabbling about on their knees in search of the single rarity that lurks amongst the ordinary – and good luck to them. Call me boring or unimaginative if you want but just give me bog standard Galanthus nivalis any day – preferably in their thousands. This really is a case where more is best as the carpets of snowdrops that flower in the garden of the house that was built for me two hundred years ago proves. (Readers of this blog may remember the post describing this house, along with the possibility that I have been reborn and finally reunited with it – most of the time I say this tongue-in-cheek, occasionally I half believe it). According to tradition the nuns that took over the property upon ‘my’ death planted them and now they have spread to cover many acres. Is there any better way for ‘me’ to be remembered?


Well, yes, there could be. My death next time round should be marked with the Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. There is something very cheering and positive about their bright yellow, perhaps it is because we crave some strong colour after a long winter. It is the same shade as the yellow daffodils and also of forsythia. By the time these have finished, weeks later, we are fed up with it and find it all rather garish. But in January we start to notice the little ruffs of green leaves pushing through the ground and, quite suddenly, the flower is opening its blooms. I hadn’t noticed before just how similar the individual flowers are to a buttercup when fully open. Not surprising really, as they all belong to the same family, Ranunculaceae. The aconite, I assume, is so-named beacause of the similarity of the leaf with the tall herbaceous aconites, Aconitum.

Neither snowdrops or aconites are native to the British Isles although both naturalise well and, given time, will occupy large areas. Conditions in this country must favour the snowdrop for snowdrop woods, whilst not common, are found with relative ease and are nearly always associated with a large country house. A much greater rarity is the aconite wood and I know of only one and heard of only one other. To visit it is an extraordinary experience for it is difficult to walk through the tens of thousands of plants that carpet the ground. This wood is also attached to a country estate but rarely visited and away from public paths. Perhaps that is why it has survived.

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Sold as ‘in the green’, both snowdrops and aconites establish in the garden best when transplanted now, that is with their leaves and flowers still lush. A grower recently told me that snowdrops naturalise more quickly when aconites are grown amongst them, perhaps because the yellow flowers attract more pollinators. However, snowdrops in grass benefit from an annual feed whilst aconites detest it. A case of ‘you pays your money and you takes your choice’, perhaps?

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9 thoughts on “Snowdrops and Aconites

  1. Why mess with a good thing? I love the regular type of snowdrops that I have come to enjoy through other gardener's blogs. They do not grow here in the desert. It is interesting that they are not native to England, but no matter as they have made themselves 'at home'.

  2. Johnson, I do not know why snowdrops (and aconites) are not more popular in Canada. When I moved back from London, I looked around, expecting to find them everywhere, like I had in London. Hardly any to be seen! I would love to have a snosdrop wood like you do, are you telling me I need 200 years?You cannot buy them in the green in Canada, only as dry bulbs in the fall, and a bit expensive, 25p per bulb.Deborah

  3. Dear Johnson, I was intrigued to read what you say here about Aconites as, only very recently in one of my postings, I described those at Wyck Place in Hampshire, former home of Lady Charlotte Bonham Carter, where there used to be regular Aconite parties. There they are in carpets of thousands. I do agree with you, this is the best way to see them, and snowdrops too.

  4. Thank you for your comments. I'm not surprised to hear that they don't survive the desert but am surprised that they aren't more widely grown in Canada. I would have thought they would do rather well as they like a good cold spell to flower well. Deborah – my experience of planting 'dry' bulbs is not that successful but with 'in the green' there is rarely a failure. Dry bulbs here are very inexpensive: you can buy them at just 6p each but fresh ones are dearer.

  5. Hi, Johnson;Popped over to pay you a visit. It's been too long. Love the Aconites but I can't be talked into snowdrops. I am, after all, stuck with snow on the ground 6 months of every year. Speaking of snow… How did Barney handle your difficult winter? My 2 mares seem to be having a grand old time playing in the drifts.

  6. Edith – thank you for your comment. I have just visited your post on aconites and an aconite party sounds a great idea. Perhaps I should hold one! The woodland in the photograph is informally called Summerhouse Wood although there is no trace of a building and even elderly locals don't remember there ever being one. Perhaps it is a name dating from Victorian times, or even earlier. A party in a summerhouse in February does sound like an eccentric Victorian's idea of fun, doesn't it?

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