A Gardening Journal
Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Gold Three Ways
- Published: March 05 2013
Winter aconite is so colorful, so early, and so self-reliant, that the question of what plants to pair with it can seem churlish. It's in bloom, regardless of the latest blizzard. Isn't that enough?
When I first wrote about plant partners for this essential Winter-flowering bulb, I pondered and even paused before suggesting ways to incorporate it into the garden's overall look. Could Eranthis hyemalis be more than a cold-weather oddity that (oops) doesn't really relate to anything else in the garden? Could anything possibly be as colorful in the midst of Winter? I'd have thought of several more possibilities if I'd just taken another look outside.
This dwarf mugo pine, for example. The needles of Pinus mugo 'Carsten's Wintergold' are boring green all Summer, but brilliant gold all Winter.
What if winter aconite were growing nearby? What a joyful interaction there could be between the pine's yellow needles and flowers of winter aconite.
And then I realized that not thirty feet away from my mother colony of Eranthis hyemalis is my young witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise'. It flowers noticeably later than many other witch hazels—just when winter aconite is blooming, and with flowers of the same bright yellow.
Neither my rich, heavy soil nor my flat terrain is hospitable to heaths and heathers, which thrive in soil of lower fertility and better drainage. For gardeners lucky enough to have such a location, the winter-flowering forms, usually derived from the species Erica carnea, are one place to look for colorful and weather-proof partners to Eranthis. The foliage of E. carnea 'Springwood White' is green, and the spikes of small flowers are white. True, true: the white flowers don't "sing in the native tongue" of the yellow blooms of Eranthis, but they don't clash, either.
For closer harmony, some forms of winter-flowering heather have golden-yellow foliage. But the flowers, such as those of E. carnea 'Sunshine Rambler', tend to be pink or lavender— which, to my eye, is a scary combination, especially anywhere near winter aconite. Instead, keep the yellow-in-Winter foliage and deal with the clashing flowers in warm weather by planting heathers that flower in Summer. These will will usually be forms of Calluna vulgaris. In Winter, the foliage of C. vulgaris 'Fire King' is bright yellow year round, sometimes bringing in notes of orange; August's pale-pink flowers (yikes!) can be clipped off.
Eranthis is an easy partner to Hamamelis: Witch hazels are deciduous shrubs that are much, much, larger than winter aconite, and so can supply the Summer shade that their diminutive partner appreciates.
Heaths, heathers, and mugo pines, though, are sun-worshippers that are all too low to the ground to provide the necessary shade for winter aconite. How could the plants be growing close enough to make their winter celebration of yellow a reality?
I grow my specimens of Pinus mugo 'Carsten's Wintergold' in weather-proof pots. In the Summer, the pines get moved to where they receive full sun; in the Winter, they get moved to a prominent but shaded-in-Summer spot along the driveway. I set one pot amid my colony of Eranthis just for the shots above; if I were to transplant clumps of Eranthis to a location that was shady in the Summer, sunny in the Winter—and prominent enough that it merited such strong highlights as pots of bright-yellow mugo pines—the combination would work. For the Summer, I'd switch the pines with pots of shade-tolerant tropicals; the Eranthis are dormant from May on, so will be out of the picture then entirely.
The reverse tactic would be to grow the pines in the ground in a location that enjoys full sun, and grow the Eranthis in weather-proof pots. February through April, the pots of winter aconite would join the pines; May through January, they'd be moved out of sight.
One way or another, the potted partner, pines or winter aconite, needs to be watered through the warm months: The pines are in active growth then and, even though it is Summer-dormant, Eranthis doesn't like to be in dry soil.
To partner Eranthis with either heaths or heathers would probably require that the winter aconite be potted. In a climate such as mine, with hot Summers that usually have weeks of drought, it would be difficult to keep Erica or Calluna alive in containers. Plus the shrubs aren't so hardy that they'd tolerate spending a cold Zone-7 Winter in containers, either. Winter aconite is hardy to Zone 4—Canada, anyone?—so it's likely to be an easy keeper in Winter-proof containers.
Here's how to grow this supremely hardy, cheery-all-Winter dwarf pine.
Here's how to grow witch hazel, some of whose forms, such as 'Arnold Promise', are in bloom at the same time as winter aconite—and in the same forsythia-bright shade.
Here's how to grow winter aconite, the brightest of all Winter-flowering perennials.