Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Winter aconite

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), native to southern Europe, has been grown in British gardens as an ornamental since late in the sixteenth century, and was first recorded as naturalised in the British Isles in 1838.

According to Janet Hitchman’s biography of the crime-writer Dorothy L. Sayers [1], when the 6-year-old Dorothy moved to her new home at Bluntisham Rectory in the Cambridgeshire Fens:

‘As the fly turned up the drive she in cried out with astonishment, “Look auntie, look!  The ground is all yellow, like the sun.”    This sudden splash of gold remained in her memory all her life.  The ground was carpeted with early flowering aconites.  Later her father told her the legend that these flowers grew in England only where Roman soldiers have shed their blood, and Bluntisham contains the outworks of a Roman camp.  So as early as this and as young as she was, her imagination was caught by ancient Rome.’

There appear to be no other records of this rather unlikely tradition.

Rather surprisingly only four local names for winter aconite have been recorded:

Choirboys, ‘from the ruffs which surround the flowers [R. Mabey, Flora Britannica, London, 1966: 42]; Christmas rose and devil’s wort, both from Somerset [A.S. Macmillan, Popular Names of Flowers, Fruits, etc., Yeovil, 1922:  57 & 83] and New Year’s gift from Essex [E.M. Wright, Rustic Speech and Folk-lore, London, 1914:  335].

1. J. Hitchman, Such a Strange Lady, London, 1975: 22; thanks to Jean Tsushima who brought this to our attention

Addendum:  Thanks to Celia Crossley, who in March 2020 supplied the following:                                                                                                           ‘Another crime writer of the time, Margery Allingham, also referred to the legend [that aconites grow where Roman blood has been spilt].  In The Oaken Heart:  The Story of an English Village at War [1941], which is her account of living in Tolleshunt D’Arcy in north Essex in World War II (place names disguised in the book for censorship reasons), she writes:  “There is a legend that aconites only flourish where Roman blood has been spilt, and if this is true there must have been a battle up there at the end of the Old Doctor’s garden” (the Old Doctor being the previous owner of her house).’

Image:  ?planted, grounds of Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, January 2016.

Updated 13 March 2020.