In the Garden:
Hepaticas are among the earliest of our native woodland wildflowers to bloom.
Hepatica - Woodland's Harbinger of Spring
Our cultivated gardens may brightened in mid- to late winter with snowdrops, crocus, iris, and hellebores, but in our native deciduous woodlands it is the hepatica that usually first welcomes us with flowers. As the sun warms the soil in late March, the down-covered buds emerge from the small rosettes of tattered leaves that have survived the winter, opening into diminutive nosegays scattered across the forest floor.
So What is a Hepatica?
Hepaticas are native wildflowers that are not easily stumbled upon; rather they have secret hiding places, usually in moist but well-drained sites on limestone soils. Their native range, however, is broad, going from Nova Scotia westward to Manitoba and south to Florida and Arkansas. There are two species found in this range: H. nobilis var. acuta (syn. H. acutiloba), sharp-lobed hepatica, and H. nobilis var.obtusa (syn. H. americana), round-lobed hepatica. Both have three-lobed leaves, with the difference being one ends in sharp points while the other has rounded leaf tips.
The genus Hepatica is not limited to North America, but, as wildflower expert William Cullina has written, they have "ridden the tectonic elephants and glacial tides completely around the world." Depending on which taxonomist is talking, there are between two and ten species of this genus in the Ranunculaceae, or Buttercup, Family. These include H. nobilis var. pyrenaica (syn. H. pyrenaica) from the Pyrenees; H. nobilis var. nobilis from Scandinavia to the Alps; H. transsilvanica from the Carpathian Mountains and Transylvania; and H. nobilis var. japonica (syn. H. japonica) and H. nobilis var. pubescens (syn. H. pubescens), both from Japan.
As to the source of the Latin binomial genus name, the word hepatica is derived from the Greek word for human liver, "hepar," due to the three-lobed leaves. From the European Doctrine of Signatures, the centuries-old philosophy that plants resembling various parts of the body can be used to treat ailments of that part of the body, hepatica was once thought to be an effective treatment for liver disorders. Although no longer used in that manner and poisonous in large doses, the leaves and flowers are occasionally used by present-day herbalists as an astringent, demulcent, or diuretic.
How Will I Recognize a Hepatica?
Although the leaves are ragged by late winter, with the normal green color having changed to burgundy, they can still enable photosynthesis from the sun coming through the bare limbs of the trees above, providing energy for the roots to send up flowers. The 1-inch wide flowers will have five to twelve petal-like sepals in shades of lavender, blue, purple, pink, or white. The round-lobed hepatica has the most consistent, deep-violet color, while the sharp-leaved hepatica is more variable in color. Each flower is borne singly on a slender, hairy stalk and surround by three green bracts with pointed tips.
The perennial plants are somewhat diminutive, about 6 inches tall and as wide. Leaves are usually 2 to 3 inches wide and with a leathery texture. The color may be a plain gray-green or have a pronounced mottling of silver or burgundy.
Can I Grow Hepatica in My Garden?
Hepaticas make a wonderful addition to a wildflower garden, along with other native spring-blooming ephemerals, such as rue anemone, Virginia bluebells, and trilliums. Choose a spot with deciduous shade, such as under oaks, maples, or beeches. They grow best with soil that is neutral to slightly alkaline, humus-rich, and moist but well-drained. Mulch around the plants in spring and fall with leaf mold or compost, but don't cover the leaves.
When purchasing hepatica plants, be sure that they are nursery-propagated. Let the plants naturally spread by seed or start the seeds yourself, sowing them as soon as they are ripe. Plants can also be divided in spring or fall, but plants are slow to re-establish. Keep two to three growing points in each clump when dividing.
As your hepaticas slowly spread, you'll come to appreciate their bravery at being one of our first native flowers to reflect the warm sunshine and glorious days to come.
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