Herb to Know: Spring Adonis

| February/March 2001

  • Photograph by J.G. Strauch, Jr.

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.

Medicinal Uses for Spring Adonis

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.



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