Anemones are members of the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family, which also includes hellebores, clematis and aquilegia. The wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) originates from Europe and, as its common name suggests, it is often found in woodland, though it also grows in grassland, heaths and hedge banks. Its pure white flowers carpet the woodland floor from March onwards, often mingling with the bluebells during April and May. Seeing these two graceful perennials shimmering together beneath the emerging tree foliage, makes any woodland visit a spring delight.
Wood anemones are also known as windflowers as their petals are easily blown about by the breeze. The genus Anemone comes from anemos (the Greek for wind) with nemorosa referring to its preferred woodland habitat. Recently renamed Anemonoides nemorosa (the new genus meaning ‘anemone-like’), wood anemones are often still referred to by their previous Latin name. Several old local terms for wood anemones refer to the white colour of the starry blooms. These evocative names include Moon-flower, Granny’s Nightcap and, according to the Northamptonshire poet John Clare, Lady Smocks.
Wood anemones spread very slowly, at around 2-5cm a year. The seed is usually infertile, so colonies primarily increase via creeping rhizomes – underground stems that spread just below the surface of the soil. Like English bluebells, these delicate spring beauties have been used as indicators of ancient deciduous woodland, particularly in the south and east of Britain.
Wood anemones can grow in deep shade but they thrive in areas of coppiced woods where more sunlight reaches the woodland floor. They produce pollen and, contrary to earlier beliefs, it was discovered recently that they also produce nectar which attracts hoverflies, bumblebees, beeflies and other flies. Wood anemones are poisonous to humans and animals. Gloves and eye protection should be worn when handling them as toxins can irritate the skin and eyes.
How to grow wood anemones
Anemone nemorosa grows best in dappled shade in moist, humus-rich soil. There are many cultivated forms of wood anemone to choose from, including double-flowered anemones and varieties with blue, purple or even green blooms.
How to identify Anemone nemorosa
Wood anemones grow to around 20cm high. They have deeply lobed leaves and red stems. Flowers usually have six or seven white sepals, sometimes flushed pink, which open in the sunshine. (Sepals are usually part of the outer layer of the flower that protects the petals, but wood anemones have no petals, only petal-like sepals.)
They could be confused with wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), which also has white flowers in spring. However, wood sorrel has trefoil-shaped leaves and the flowers have five white petals with pink-lilac veining.
Where to grow wood anemones
In their natural environment, wood anemones grow best in dappled shade in soil that remains damp, but not waterlogged, in spring. They will grow in most garden soils and can cope with both acid and alkaline conditions. They create a striking mass of white blooms in early spring under trees and shrubs.
How to plant wood anemones
Wood anemones are most often sold as dormant rhizomes, sometimes called wood anemone bulbs.
- Plant rhizomes in September or October
- Soak dried rhizomes overnight
- Add compost or leaf mould to the soil prior to planting
- Plant rhizomes 10-15cm apart and 5cm deep
How to care for Anemone nemorosa
Wood anemones require very little attention. They will die back once they have flowered and produce fresh new leaves the following spring. While plants are dormant, give them an annual dry mulch of leaf mould. Wood anemones in containers need watering during the growing season and will benefit from liquid feed once they begin to flower.
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How to propagate wood anemones
Wood anemones can be sown from seed or rhizomes can be lifted and divided in spring once the foliage has died back. Bear in mind that it is illegal to dig up wood anemones in the wild, so propagation can only be done from plants growing in gardens.
Pests and diseases
Wood anemones have few problems with pests and diseases. Damage can occasionally be caused by slugs, caterpillars, eelworms or powdery mildew. To avoid issues with powdery mildew, ensure good ventilation around plants by dividing clumps if they become congested and keeping plants in pots well-watered.
- Dried rhizomes are available from nurseries, garden centres and online suppliers in early autumn
- When buying rhizomes, always check that they are firm, with no signs of damp or mould
- If dried rhizomes fail to thrive, try planting anemones in pots or fresh rhizomes at the end of the summer. Potted plants are easier to get established, but more expensive to buy
Where to buy wood anemones online
Wood anemone varieties to buy
Anemone nemorosa ‘Vestal’ – with its pure white double flowers and dissected leaves, ‘Vestal’ spreads relatively quickly compared to other varieties and makes a charming addition to any garden.
Height x Spread: 20cm x 20cm
Anemone nemorosa ‘Robinsonia’ – this beautiful variety has soft lilac-blue flowers with golden centres. It flowers in April and May, and the delicate blooms last well. A favourite of Irish gardeners and journalist, William Robinson, who found it flowering at the Oxford Botanical Garden in the nineteenth century, ‘Robinsoniana’ is a well-deserved recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit.
H x S: 15cm x 30cm
Anemone nemorosa ‘Allenii’ – another RHS Award of Garden Merit winner with lavender-blue blooms, flushed pink on reverse. Flowers have a particularly sweet scent.
H x S: 20cm x 40cm
Anemone nemorosa ‘Blue Eyes’ – attractive semi-double flowers with vivid blue centres in March and April. Initially flowers may be single, but plants should develop double flowers within a year or two. Perfect for growing in containers.
H x S: 15cm x 15cm
Anemone nemorosa ‘Virescens’ – for a more unusual look, try growing this green-flowered variety which has a mass of feathery leaf-like tepals (sepals and petals) in the centre of each bloom. A real spring curiosity!
H x S: 15cm x 15cm