Add spring adonis to the list of bright-yellow-flowered harbingers of spring with a long history of medicinal use. Unfortunately, however, this herb’s popularity as a medicine has resulted in overcollecting, greatly endangering its existence in the wild.
The genus Adonis comprises about twenty species of annual or perennial herbs native to Europe and Asia. In Greek mythology, Adonis was the beautiful youth beloved by Aphrodite who was killed by a wild boar while hunting. In one version of the legend, Aphrodite turned Adonis’s body into a flowering plant; in another, a plant arose where his blood fell. The plant in the story most likely is the red-flowered annual pheasant’s-eye (A. annua), which is native to Greece and other parts of southern Europe to southwestern Asia.
Spring adonis (A. vernalis) ranges from southeastern Sweden south to Spain and east to western Siberia. (Vernalis is Latin for “of spring.”) This species is hardy in Zones 3 through 7; plants need about six weeks of temperatures below 40°F to break dormancy in spring.
Imagine a flock of glossy, 3-inch, yellow buttercups set in a nest of dense, bright green dill-like foliage. Erect, unbranched stems bearing finely cut leaves rise from a short, stout rootstock. The stems are about 8 inches tall when flowering begins in late spring, but they continue to elongate until they are about 16 inches tall. Each solitary, terminal flower consists of a ring of fuzzy, ovate, dull green sepals surrounding twelve to twenty elliptical yellow petals. The numerous stamens are topped by yellow anthers. The fruits are fuzzy, egg-shaped achenes less than 1/4 inch long. These are dispersed by ants.
In the wild, spring adonis is found in rough, stony grasslands and scrubby pinewoods and on dry hillsides. Rock gardeners treasure this species as well as A. amurensis, an Asian yellow-flowered perennial with coarser leaves that blooms in earliest spring. Both are effective as single specimens and are dazzling in a mass planting. Site them on a slope or near the front of the border, where they may be seen to full advantage. Mature plants of spring adonis may measure 18 inches across. The foliage dies down in the summer as the plants become dormant so you may want to slip in some annuals to fill the space if neighboring plants don’t do the job.
The leaves and/or tops of spring adonis contain a number of biologically active compounds, including cardioactive glycosides that benefit the heart. The plant parts are dried and made into extracts or tinctures whose principal use has been to regulate the heartbeat (the species’ alternate common name, false hellebore, refers to a different genus of plants in the buttercup family with a similar use). But don’t even think of growing this (or any other) herb to make your own heart medicine; cardiac disorders require professional diagnosis and treatment. One adverse effect of using spring adonis internally is sudden paralysis of the heart.
All adonis harvested in Europe to supply manufacturers of herbal preparations is collected from the wild, mainly or entirely by pulling out the flowering stems while the plants are in full bloom; this activity, combined with digging up plants to sell as ornamentals and habitat destruction, has eliminated the species in Italy and the Netherlands and decimated populations in Slovakia, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and Hungary. Most of the recent commercial harvests have come from Romania, where a permit is now required, and Russia, where populations are reported to be rapidly declining. The species is now protected in France and Hungary; quotas have been imposed in Bulgaria.
Establishing cultivated stands of spring adonis to supply the commercial market would relieve the pressure on wild populations, but might well not be economically feasible because plants take years to reach harvestable size, and the usual method of yanking the tops out of the ground can destroy the plants or at least set them back. Cutting stems two to five inches from the ground, however, might spare the plants, whether in the wild or cultivated, but the method needs to be evaluated.
Plant spring adonis in moist soil in full sun or, especially in the South, part shade. Gardeners differ as to whether the soil needs to be alkaline, but all agree that it must be well drained. Set the crown an inch below the surface of the soil. You may divide established plants in early spring or fall.
Propagation from seed is difficult. Germination can be slow and erratic, and growth of seedlings is slow as well. For best results, sow fresh seed in a cold frame as soon as it is ripe; cover it lightly with soil. Then cover the seedbed or pots with hardware cloth to keep out birds and rodents.
And prepare to do battle with slugs. Some gardeners like to sink tuna cans filled with beer in the ground, hoping that beer-crazed slugs will drown in it. Others leave cantaloupe rinds or cabbage leaves lying around and periodically scoop the accumulation of slugs into a jar of soapy water. Escar-Go and Sluggo are environmentally friendly commercial controls.
You may have to wait several years before your seed-grown spring adonis plants flower for the first time. If you’re the impatient type, you’d be better off buying plants in the first place.
• JDS Gardens, RR #4, 2277 County Rd. 20, Harrow, ON, Canada N0R 1G0; (519) 738-9513; www.jdsgardens.com. Plants.
• Jelitto Perennial Seeds, 125 Chenoweth Ln., Louisville, KY 40207; (502) 895-0807; www.jelitto.com. Seeds.
• Sandeman Seeds, 7 Route de Burosse, 64350 Lalongue, France; phone 33 559 68 28 86; www.sandemanseeds.com. Seeds.
• Specialty Perennials Seeds, 481 Reflection Rd., Apple Valley, MN 55124; (612) 432-8673; www.hardyplants.com/seeds.htm. Seeds.
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