Anemone nemorosa – wood anemone
Anemone nemorosa, now more correctly named Anemonoides nemorosa, is a low-growing plant in the Ranunculaceae family.
It is a native species throughout Europe to W Caucasus growing in woodland and shady hillsides.
I’ll look at the name, structure, and some of the wild and cultivated forms – and a few extra surprises.
Anemone nemorosa – a native wild flower
The name anemone is derived from the Greek, anemos, wind, but there dooesn’t seem to be any evident connection between the two. Perhaps the meaning has been lost by corruption, myth or legend. Windflower seems to be used as a common name for all anemones. Anemonoides simply means resembling Anemone.
The specific epithet, nemorosa, is derived from nemus, Latin for woodland, forest, or grove.
And this is where we see Anemone nemorosa, carpeting the ground in the dappled shade under deciduous trees in March and April. Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, tells us that it is, “one of the most faithfull indicators of ancient woodland.”
The flowers are usually white but forms flushed pink or blue have often been noted. In the western counties of Britain, in Wales and Ireland varieties with richer blue and pink colours occur and it is from these that our best forms originate.
John Gerard, in his Herbal of 1597, writes that he has twelve different sorts of anemone in his garden and knows of many more. “every new year bringing with it new and strange kinds; and every country his peculiar plants of this sort, which are sent unto us from far countries.”
He separates the wild anemones into a new chapter. “Like as there may be many and divers sorts of the garden anemones, so are there of the wild kinds also, which do vary especially in their flowers.” He describes the White windflower, Anemone nemorum alba, and the entry is amended in the 1633 Edition, where Thomas Johnson adds the Wild purple windflower, Anemone nemorum purpurea, and Anemone nemorum coccinia, Wild scarlet windflower, “with a scarlet (or rather a blush) coloured flower.”
I find it amazing, and somewhat chasening, to realize that nearly four hundred years ago gardeners were noting these small differences and naming plants, just as we do today – even if a scarlet wood anemone was a little fanciful, although he did admit it was only blush!
A.n. ‘Robinsoniana’ gets a look in but is not in his top rank, although it does seem to be the most popular and most often mentioned nowadays. Named after William Robinson, who recorded in 1883 that he had found it in the Botanic Garden at Oxford, but it had been sent from Ireland, its tepals are pale grey outside and lavender-blue inside.
His third top candidate is A.n. ‘Leeds’ Variety’, which is twice the size of any other variety with pure white tepals that are flushed with pink outside as they fade. I have been unable to find out who Mr. Leeds might have been.
E.A. Bowles thought very highly of the wood anemone and devoted many pages to it in his book, My Garden in Spring.
There are lots of named cultivars
In Perennial Garden Plants, Graham Stuart Thomas writes in great detail about Anemone nemorosa, which he regarded as a ‘woodland gem’, and its named forms, three of which he considered really good garden plants with exceptional beauty.
A.n.‘Vestal’ has been known since 1870. It is pure white with the usual seven outer tepals and a dense centre of tiny ones. He describes it as an exquisite and valuable plant.
A.n.‘Allenii’ was raised by James Allen prior to 1890 and described as a most lovely flower. It is the largest and most strongly coloured, deep lilac outside, deep lavender-blue inside.
He too thought ‘Leeds’ Variety’ was the best white form and writes,”Dr. Lowe gave it to me under that name, and told me he had it from Leeds himself, but I do not know whether he was the finder of it.” Perhaps we’ll never know who Leeds was. He also considered ‘Allenii’ better than ‘Robinsoniana’ suggesting it “has eclipsed it in beauty.”
Carol Klein in her beautiful book, Plant Personalities, – with stunning potographs by Jonathan Buckley – includes Anemone nemorosa in the chapter entitled ‘Cinderella plants’. What a wonderful idea – “Cinderella plants shoot to stardom in a matter of weeks, accomplishing their whole cycle, then disappearing into dormancy before the clock strikes twelve.” She writes, “Anemone nemorosa ‘Vestal’ – as pure as she sounds – is the belle of the ball, with a profusion of white tepals turning each flower into a perfect powder puff, sitting on a rosette of equally white outer tepals.”
“By now you might be forgiven for thinking that these few are the only forms available, but this is not so. The list of named cultivars in the RHS Plant Finder is very long indeed but details on them are somewhat hard to find.
Beth Chatto comes to the rescue by mentioning a few. A.n. ‘Virescens’ “has curiously attractive green flowers.” Instead of the normal white flower, each consists of overlapping layers of what look like finely divided leaves. “Intriguing to look down on, it is irresistable to a flower arranger.” She also describes A.n. ‘Lady Doneraile’ as having very large pure white flowers with dark-stained stems. E.A. Bowles mentioned that Lady Doneraile had found this form in Ireland.
Amazingly, I have been able to find out something about her, and it’s a most unusual story. I’ve popped it in at the bottom of the post.
The two images above are A.n. ‘Royal Blue’, a form with very dark blue flowers and dark shading at the base of the stems and petioles. I have used this form in the images describing the plant in detail.
The plant in detail
Anemone nemorosa is a perennial with a rhizomatous rootstock. In Anemone the rootstock can range from a thin rhizome to a rounded tuber depending on the dryness of its habitat in summer. Coming from areas of shady moist woodland, this species has a thin, branching rhizome.
There are 3-palmate green, basal and stem leaves with irregularly lobed leaflets. The basal leaves form a low carpet of foliage, above which solitary flowers are held on stems of about 15cm. The stem leaves are arranged in threes behind the flowers. After flowering the leaves die down and are gone by the summer. The rhizomes remain dormant below ground.
The flower up close
Each flower has 6-8 tepals. In this species sepals and petals cannot be differentiated so are referred to as tepals. This cultivar has eight tepals.
Inside the tepals there are numerous, spirally arranged stamens and a mass of free carpels. You can see in the dissection image that the tepals, stamens, and carpels are attached to a dome-shaped receptacle.
After pollination, the tepals and stamens fall away and the mass of carpels remains. The carpels develop into achenes – fruits that are dry, one-seeded, and indehiscent (remaining closed at maturity).
That just leaves its cultivation to consider, and that’s where I have a problem.
How to grow Anemone nemorosa
Anemone nemorosa is a woodland plant and so thrives best in woodland conditions – moist and humus-rich. Brian Mathew recommends, “moist positions and will not tolerate hot dry soils.” Jack Elliott suggests, “shady beds in moist humus-rich soil.” Graham Stuart Thomes writes, “preferably in part shade under shrubs in light or heavy soil.” The RHS Encyclopedia encourages us, “Moist but well-drained, humus-rich soil in partial shade, although drier conditions are tolerated when dormant in summer.”
I know that my soil is far from ideal for these woodlanders but I have grown them for many years in the shade of silver birches. The image of Anemone nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’ above is proof that I have had clumps covered in flowers – until last year.
Bizarrely, I blamed the lack of blooms on a rabbit that had taken up residence, imagining that it could seek out the flower buds whilst leaving the foliage untouched – because the leaves are very healthy and the clumps large and growing. This year I have kept the garden rabbit-free but again there are very few blooms, except for one clump of ‘Royal Blue’, which is a little further away from the birches with a little more light and is covered in flowers.
Is it an issue of light, moisture, or has the extreme heat and dryness of the last two years meant that flower buds were unable to develop? Any details of similar experiences, suggestions or remedies would be gratefully recieved. Please do add your comments below.
Lady Doneraile and Irish lace
Lady Doneraile was born Mary-Anne-Grace-Louise Lenox-Conyngham and, in 1851, married the Hon. Hayes St. Leger, who succeeded to the title Viscount Doneraile. The family seat was Doneraile Court, County Cork.
A correspondence between Lady Doneraile and Sir William Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, began in 1854 when she wrote thanking him for, “the quantity of beautiful plants you have been so extrememly kind as to bestow on us.” She visited Kew with her husband that summer to meet Sir William and thank him in person, and made a second visit later with her father.
These visits were followed by an exchange of less formal letters and a steady stream of plants from Kew to Doneraile Court. A letter in January 1855 was sent with the first gift of Irish lace for the museum at Kew, which had been set up to house a variety of items made from plants and to obtain knowledge that might be of value in setting up industries in remote part of the empire.
In the letter she explains that she is sending some lace made from the fibres of plants. It could be made from any kind of plant but generally from the nettle, which was easily procurred. However the piece she was sending was made from the fibres of Solomon’s Seal, which was smoother and finer than that of the nettle. She hoped that he would appreciate these plant-based items.
Irish lace had become very popular and it was to hand-made lace that some concerned people turned in the hope that it could help relieve the poverty in the country caused by the potato famine of 1845-47. Lady Doneraile went on to send other samples of lace and skeins of thread, used in their manufacture, made from plants such as convolvulus, nasturtium, sweet pea, honeysuckle, marshmallow and oxeye daisy.
In 1858 Sir William Hooker dedicated Volume 84 of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine to Viscountess Doneraile and, somewhere along the way, she also had a humble wood anemone named after her.
Her husband died in 1887 and she moved to France, where she made another garden. Mary, Viscountess Doneraile died in Nice in 1907.
Find more information
- I follow a number of blogs but particularly like the one from Paddy Tobin, an Irish Gardener. A recent post is relevant here because it includes some lovely images of Anemone nemorosa cultivars. Take a look.
- Plants of the World Online – Anemonoides nemorosa
- I wrote a post on Anemone blanda and included a section about Ranunculaceae. You might like to read it to compare the two anemones.
- You can see the whole article about Lady Doneraile on JSTOR. You have to register and sign in but you can then read the article, and many more, for free.
- James Allen, who gave us Anemone nemorosa ‘Allenii’, also cropped up in my post on snowdrops, particularly Galanthus ‘Merlin’. Take a look to find out more about him.
- Perennial Garden Plants by Graham Stuart Thomas
- Woodland Garden by Beth Chatto
- The Smaller Perennials by Jack Elliott
- Dwarf Bulbs by Brian Mathew
- Plant Personalities by Carol Klein
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