Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, last year I decided to finally get my act together and plant some woodland bulbs. With the help of my husband I planted snowdrops and cyclamen, lily of the valley and bluebells, and some winter aconite. I had been hoping for a carpet of spring colour. Instead, I have exactly two winter aconites, and a small early crop of stinging nettles. Whether the squirrels have had the lot or they’re just late is anybody’s guess. So I was particularly pleased to spot this fine collection of yellow beauties in a church yard in Camden, not far from Regent’s Park.
Winter aconites are a member of the buttercup family, but they always remind me of tiny saffron waterlilies. In Suffolk (where they seem to be particularly abundant) they are known as ‘choirboys’ because the ruff of leaves rather resembles the neckline of a choirboy’s costume. The plant came originally from southern Europe and was apparently first introduced to the UK in 1596. By 1838 they were recorded in the wild, and are now seen in churchyards and verges, usually close to human habitation. However, there is a legend that winter aconites only grow where the blood of Roman soldiers was spilled, which implies that either the plants are time-travellers, or they were here a lot earlier than their documented first appearance. This Roman connection was a source of inspiration for the crime novelist Dorothy L.Sayers, who moved close to a Roman camp at Bluntisham, near Cambridge when she was a little girl, and was delighted by the winter aconites. When her father told her the story, her interest in ancient Rome was triggered. Although better known for her Sir Peter Wimsey detective novels, she became something of a classicist, and would explore this in her non-fiction work ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’, which advocated a return to the skills of logic, grammar and rhetoric. I can’t help wondering if, with the current level of political argument, she might have had a point.
Winter aconites are not actually members of the Aconite family but on the ever-informative Poison Garden website, John Robertson explains that the leaves look like those of the true aconites. This might also be why the plant has a reputation for being poisonous: all buttercups are poisonous to a degree, but true aconites, such as Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) are among the most toxic plants in the garden. I have only been able to find two documented cases of death through winter aconite poisoning, The first was an elderly German dachshund with a history of plant ingestion. The other is from the Plant Lives website, and mentions the death, in 1822, of the unfortunate Mrs Gorst, who is said to have harvested winter aconite tubers after mistaking them for horseradish. Suffice it to say that eating decorative garden plants is never a great idea for any creature, human or otherwise.
As one of the earliest flowering of all bulbs, winter aconite is a real boon in a woodland garden (or would be if it actually grew). They are known as spring ephemerals, because they take advantage of the light that filters through to the forest floor before the foliage appears on the trees, and disappear later in the year. In this, they mimic their close relative, the lesser celandine. Even snow does not deter the winter aconite. For the rest of the year, the plant hides beneath the leaf litter as a bulb, waiting for its moment of glory when everything else is still dormant.
Winter aconite has inspired a number of artists, including Sir Stanley Spencer, more famous for his figurative paintings involving his home village of Cookham. Here is a painting that he made on commission for the wife of the local vicar, the Reverend Canon Westropp. It was sold at Bonhams in 2013 for £51,650, and I suspect that this might have been a bargain. Spencer had always made studies of local flora to include in his landscape paintings, but the floral paintings were small and sold well. Spencer worked on some of these paintings between his more famous works, and seems to have taken a great deal of care over them: he commented that one of his plant pictures, ‘Magnolias’, was ‘as good as anything that I’ve ever done’. There is certainly a lot of love in ‘Winter Aconites’, painted in 1957, towards the end of Spencer’s life (he died in 1959).
And I would like to finish with a poem, because that’s always a good way to finish in my experience. The poet Freda Downie, who died in 1993, was born in Shooter’s Hill, evacuated to Northamptonshire, returned to London in time for the Blitz, left when it finished and with impeccable timing was brought back to London in time for the V1 and V2 rockets. I love her poem Aconites, which feels just right for this time of the year, and even mentions a blackbird.
“Winter holds fast,
But a little warmth escapes like sand
Through the closed fingers.
The error is annual and certain,
Letting the pygmy flowers
Make their prompt appearance
Under creaking trees.
They stand with serious faces, green ruffled,
As prim as Tudor portraits.
In the west
The greys and gleam slide in the wind
And only the descended blackbird
Augments the intrepid yellow.”
Photo One (Winter Aconites by Stanley Spencer) https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/20776/lot/69/
Freda Downie’s poem was published on the Greentapestry website here
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