THE WINTER ACONITE, Eranthis hyemali
IN common with many of the humbler kinds of garden flowers, the winter aconite is but little known to humble gardeners, but the managers of "great places" know it, and prize it, and turn it to good account in the comparatively new order of decoration known as "spring gardening." It is but a little herb, with a dark tuberous root, producing in February or March yellow flowers, surrounded by a whorl of glossy-green deeply-cut leaves. It lasts but a short time, and is not very showy even at the best.
But as one star compels attention when the sky is black and no other star is to be seen, so this little flower, which is many degrees inferior in brightness of colouring to a common buttercup, has a most delightful appearance if we have the good fortune to see it on a soft sunny day in February. Then, indeed, it seems to say the spring is surely coming, and even the frost-defying daffodils, that come before the swallow dares, are outdone in their haste to scatter gold upon the ground to pay for the reckless banqueting that is about to begin. In its own grassy nooks of sunny Italy it flowers at Christmas, but in this dull clime it does not often dare to lift up its head until the month of March, and even later, if the winter has been of the cruel kind that people, as if in contempt of the taste of their ancestors, cruelly describe as "old-fashioned." The humble gardener, as remarked above, scarcely knows this plant, although it is one of the cheapest, and will grow anywhere. But the gardener who has to keep a great parterre at all times gay has long since discovered its value, and therefore he plants hundreds or thousands, as the case may be, to produce masses of golden flowers, according to the requirements of his complicated designs in colour. It will not be expected that in this place there should appear a disquisition on the bedding system, but it is proper to note that in "spring bedding" the principal elements are such homely flowers as daisies, polyanthuses, forget-me-nots, primroses, and pansies; and where lines or blocks of soft yellow are required, the artist dips his pencil into Eranthis hyemalis, or, in other words, he plants the little herb, and leaves Dame Nature to bring out the colour.
But this is not the only way in which the winter aconite is employed in great gardens. One of the most pleasing of many good features in the spring gardening at Belvoir Castle consists in the management of grassy slopes that occur, as it were casually, in connection with the walks. These slopes are planted with snowdrops, crocuses, winter aconites, and other flowers that mingle unobtrusively and naturally with the grass, and their flowers are indescribably charming, springing as they do from the rich green herbage, as if, like the wild buttercups and daisies, they were members of the gay family of vagrants to whom the prairie is a happy land.
But there is nothing new or strange in the employment of the winter aconite, either in the formal parterre or the half-wild grassy bank that perhaps mingles softly with a knoll of ivy. These matters are mentioned for the purpose of showing that a very humble and by no means showy plant has its uses, and is, in its way, invaluable to the master of decorative gardening. The little daughter of a great painter said to him one day, "Oh, how you are loading that picture with mud-colour!" The father took the pretty rebuke laughingly, and replied, "Yes, my little cherub, it will prove the best picture I have painted, and enable you to ride through the mud in a painted coach." And so it proved; but it was a long time ere the child could see beauty in mud-colour.
The winter aconite is a member of the great Ranunculus family, in which we meet with the true aconite, which has been described already. In the description reference is made to this plant, and to the opinions of the old herbalists in respect of its virtues. In Gerarde it is admirably figured under the name of "winter woolfesbane, Aconitum hyemale." He says: "It groweth upon the mountaines of Germanie; we haue great quantitie of it in our London gardens. It bloweth in Ianuarie; the seed is ripe in the end of March." He speaks of it as "very dangerous and deadly" as it is, and adds that it is mighty against the bites of scorpions: "If the scorpion passe by where it groweth and touch the same, presently he becommeth dull, heauie, and sencelesse."
The winter aconite is scarcely to be regarded as a good border flower. At all events, when planted in the border it is exposed to the risk of being dug up and destroyed--a risk it shares in common with many good things that never last long where the practice of promiscuous digging of borders is permitted. The jobbing gardener appears to have been commissioned by Mephistopheles to crush out of existence all the good hardy plants, and to supply in their place geraniums at three shillings a dozen. He does his best, at all events, to annihilate daffodils, and paeonies, and delphiniums, and day-lilies, and aconites, and dielytras, because they do not show themselves at the time when he plies his spade industriously. Perhaps he ought to know that their roots are alive below ground, and ought not to be made into mincemeat; but we must make allowances, for it often happens that between what is and what "ought" to be there is a great gulf fixed, and a man may be a gardener and yet not know everything.
Title: THE WINTER ACONITE, Eranthis hyemali Copyright 2002 by PageWise, Inc.
Copyright 2002 by PageWise, Inc.
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