Wood Anemones light up the floor of deciduous woodlands in March and April with starry constellations of pure white or pink tinged blooms. The flowers are lifted above a shaggy carpet of lush green leaves, an emerald sky to the white star flowers.
This is not a flower I was familiar with in childhood and there are none in the woodlands near where I currently live. Travelling by car in a lane in West Berkshire last spring, I spotted a huge clump of them by the roadside, and immediately fell in love.
I was keen to try and get a patch going in my garden and this article describes how I went about it.
Sadly, I didn’t have my camera with me when I saw the roadside clump but if you want to know what they look like in a woodland setting, there are many beautiful images online. Follow the link here to the pages of the Woodland Trust, which contains some lovely photographs of this stunning woodland flower.
Where do wood anemones grow in the wild?
Wood Anemones are part of the ranunculus or buttercup family. Their latin name is Amemone nemorosa but have the endearing common names of Windflower and Ladies nightcap. Whilst in the same family, they are different from Anemone Blanda, which has more daisy-like, starry flowers in blue, white and pink.
Native to most parts of Northern Europe, the Wood Anemone grows under the canopy of deciduous woodland, where sunlight can permeate the bare branches and allow the flowers to open. They stubbornly refuse to open on dull or rainy days.
Large expanses of Wood Anemones can indicate an ancient woodland. Unlike bluebells and many other woodland flowers, they do not spread by seed, colonising slowly instead by extending their wormlike brown rhizomes through the leaf littered soil of the forest floor. A strong colony is therefore an indication of perfect conditions and years of slow but steady expansion.
Anemone nemorosa is the common wild species but in her book ‘Bulb’, Anna Pavord lists hybrids such as the pale yellow Anemone x lipsiensis ‘Pallida’ and a lavender coloured variety called ‘Allenii’.
Where to grow wood anemones
If you like the look of Wood Anemones, don’t be put off if you have a small garden or lack a woodland setting. Wood Anemones are surprisingly versatile in the garden. They will grow at any aspect and can tolerate sun or partial shade.
They do require moist soil, so any site which dries out in summer is unlikely to be suitable. The display should get better and better every year so it’s best to choose a site where the rhizomes can be left undisturbed to do their thing.
Sarah Raven flowers suggest planting them at the front of borders. I can imagine them adding a lacy frill to your floral displays if used in this way, but not if you change your displays regularly or could damage the rhizomes with your trowel whilst weeding.
J Parkers recommends them as rockery plants or even in patio pots.
My chosen site
Whilst I liked the idea of growing some in pots, the thought of establishing a small colony to replicate a woodland scene was too tempting. I remembered an unpromising site at the base of a large copper beech tree at the far end of my garden. The canopy provides shade in summer but will not be in leaf at flowering time, hopefully allowing the flowers to open on sunny days.
Nothing much was growing in this area apart from a hellebore, a few Elephant’s Ears (Bergenia), ferns, ivy and some self-seeded baby hollies and elders. A few Cyclamen hederifolium had also spread here from a neighbouring patch.
Wood anemones are available from some suppliers actively growing in spring, or as dormant rhizomes in autumn. A third option is described in Anna Pavord’s book ‘Bulb’ – to plant them in autumn, freshly lifted at source and damp packed. An admittedly quick online search revealed no obvious suppliers of these, but it may be possible to find local suppliers for those in the know.
The advantage of buying plants in the spring is that you can see they are healthy, can see they are in flower, and if looked after should establish well in their first season. The disadvantage is cost.
Last year the Tiny Plant Company kindly sent me their last few plants of Anemone nemorosa, potted in their ingenious compostable non-plastic pots. These beautiful plants cost £2.75 each so unless money is no object, this method is recommended for use in containers, or where a small display is sought in a rockery or border. Another great idea could be to nestle a handful of plants in between tree roots.
If you’re looking to colonise a bigger area, planting a large number of dormant rhizomes in September, October or early November is the most cost effective method. Some rhizomes are also available to buy in spring. I bought 50 rhizomes from Gee Tee bulbs, costing £12. Many suppliers, including Gee Tee and J Parkers reduce their prices if stock levels allow so it’s not too late to hunt online for a bargain.
I’m going to describe how I planted these out direct in the garden but another option is to pot some up and get them growing strongly before planting out later – as if you were a nursery or garden centre. I have tried this – cramming 6 or more rhizomes into each 2 litre pot last spring. After a wait of almost a year the rhizomes did sprout but not until I’d almost forgotten about them. I’d recommend this only if you have the space to store multiple pots and keep an eye on them. Once planted out they established quickly.
The rhizomes usually arrive fairly dry and packed with a small amount of dessicated compost in a plastic or paper bag. They very in length from 5 – 10cm long and are a deep mahogany brown colour. They look wormlike and fairly unpromising but up close I could see that some of mine were already beginning to sprout.
It’s a good idea to soak the rhizomes overnight in water to stimulate growth. I didn’t do this as a window opened up for me to plant them when I wasn’t expecting and I was therefore unprepared. I take these opportunities when I can. As I was planting them into fairly moist soil I decided not to worry too much as I could always water them in.
Preparing the site
I started by scraping back the leaf litter and mulch that was lying on my chosen area using a spade. I kept this is a large pile at the edge of the planting area. This revealed plants that I needed to move – the ferns and bergenia and those I needed to weed out, such as the self-seeded hollies and ivy.
I left the cyclamen hederifolium as this is a pretty woodland plant and should provide interest here in autumn if I can get it to spread. I was careful to leave a small area undisturbed as this was where I had planted the plants from the Tiny Flower company last spring. Luckily I had marked these with small green sticks.
Once weeded, I used a spade to scrape off the first 5cm or so of soil, and I placed this is a large trug.
I then placed the rhizomes horizontally across the entire area, 5-7cm apart, before covering them over with the reserved soil. Suppliers differ in their advice on planting depth with suggestions ranging from 4-10cm.
Mine were covered in 5cm of soil, probably the minimum desirable, but I knew I had additional leaf-mould to add on top. You could add extra depth using homemade or bought compost.
Finally, I used a spade to redistribute the reserved leaf mould over the entire area.
I watered the area but if you’re planting soaked rhizomes this shouldn’t be necessary.
I await the first signs of growth next spring and hope to share some lovely pictures here. Whilst in year one the display may be sparse, it should develop year after year to provide a stunning carpet of beautiful anemones in years to come.
One year on – an update
A year after I planted the anemones in this area and all are looking healthy. The emerald green leaves shine out amongst the damp leaf litter and whilst there were no flowers in spring, the smattering of leaves shows the rhizomes are establishing and I hope it’s only a matter of time before the flowers come.
Meanwhile, in another shady bed, the anemones that I had planted up in pots have established much quicker and of the two methods, I would say this has been the most successful for me. I’m likely to pot up some more rhizomes next year to add to the ones under the tree shown above.
I continue to read about how tricky wood anemones are to establish and my experience doesn’t argue otherwise. I started this article describing how slow they are to colonise an area and how they are a symbol therefore of ancient woodland. I’ll be waiting for a carpet of those starry white flowers in my garden a bit longer but it will be worth it.