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10 Jan 2020

Blooming gorgeous: winter aconite

Written by Bex Outram, Assistant Ranger, St Abb’s Head NNR
Close-up of a yellow winter aconite flower with waxy green leaves.
The winter aconite flowers come rain, shine or even snow.
Starting to bloom in early January, winter aconite adds a splash of colour at an otherwise very dull time of year!

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is native to woodlands of France, Italy and the Balkans, but is now widely naturalised across other parts of Europe, including the UK.

The small yellow flowers pop their heads out very early in the year, which seems like an unusual tactic for a flowering plant. However, as with everything in nature, there’s method in the madness! It grows most abundantly in deciduous woodlands, and the strategy of flowering early enables it to take advantage of the maximum amount of sunlight penetrating the canopy without the leaves blocking the light. Being one of the earliest flowering plants, it has very little else to compete with for light and nutrients at this time of year. Part of its Latin name hyemalis actually translates as ‘winter flowering’.

An outcrop of yellow winter aconite flowers, popping up from a carpet of fallen leaves.
Winter aconite growing beside the nature centre

Interestingly, winter aconite is actually poisonous when ingested by humans, as it contains cardiac glycosides that affect the heart; if ingested in large quantities, it can cause irreparable heart damage. So this is not a plant to mess with! We see it flowering around the reserve car park and the office in the early part of the year, giving us a little burst of hope and spring on those short, gloomy winter days.

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