There are hundreds of species of flowers that are native to the woodlands of northeastern North America, and nearly 90% of them bloom in the spring. Woodland perennials take full advantage of conditions that are conducive to flowering, by blossoming before the forest trees leaf out. At this time the soil has thawed and warmed, and the rays of the sun can still reach the forest floor. The first to bloom is always skunk cabbage. It blooms before most pollinators are available, so pollination is accomplished by flies that are attracted to its fetid odor. The next to bloom is usually hepatica, a small woodland perennial whose blossoms span the time of available pollinators, relying on flies as well as early bees, beetles and moths. Its clumps of bright white, blue or purple daisy-like flowers have a delicate scent. This little woodland gem is surprisingly under-used in the home garden, even though it is very noticeable in bloom, very easy to grow and very long-lived.
The genus Hepatica is made up of ten species that occur in the temperate woodlands of North America, Asia and Europe. H. nobilis, H. acutiloba and H. americana are native to North America. They are all evergreen, with three- to seven-lobed basal leaves that may be purple beneath and are often marbled or speckled with silver on top. Leaves may be up to three inches wide on plants that range from three to six inches high. Hepatica is also known as liverleaf. The perceived resemblance of its leaves to the liver has given it its common name and its botanic name: “hepar” is Latin for liver. Although it is considered a poison today, hepatica leaves were used in the past to cure liver and kidney ailments and to soothe coughs. In the late 1800s, the US was a leading producer and exporter of hepatica leaves for use in herbal remedies.
Unlike most woodland wildflowers, hepatica leaves are evergreen. In the spring, flower stalks emerge from the center of the previous season's basal leaves. The flower stalks are covered with hair, making them appear furry. Like the fur of animals, the hairs protect the hepatica from frost. The difference is that animal fur acts as protection by holding in body heat, but on this plant, the hairs prevent ice condensation, thus protecting this very early-bloomer from the damaging frosts of cold nights in early spring.
Hepatica flowers last for weeks. The petals are actually sepals, each with three bracts. The number of sepals can vary from six to twenty. Older clumps have up to thirty flowering stems covered with silky hair. When the flowers have passed, new leaves emerge, also covered with a downy fur. As the leaves unfurl, they become a shiny, leathery green that darkens with age.
The first time I saw hepatica was at Blanchette Gardens nursery. I was immediately attracted to its leaves, with their unique shape and attractive marbling. It wasn't in bloom at the time, and I really did buy it just on the basis of the foliage. That was about 20 years ago, and I have grown to love this little plant in all its stages. It is the first perennial to bloom in my garden and it seems to glisten as the spring sun reflects off its furry stems. Its fresh green leaves with silver marbling remain an attractive presence in my shade garden right through the winter, when the leaves flatten and hug the ground. In my garden, it grows in the shade between an oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and a yellow waxbells (Kirengoshoma palmata), in a bed that includes foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia 'Brandywine'), assorted ferns and numerous hosta and epimedium cultivars. It is very low maintenance. The only attention it receives is a top-dressing of compost and the occasional addition of lime, since it likes soil more neutral than mine.
Hepatica is a beautiful and unique addition to the home shade garden. It prefers conditions that mimic deciduous woodlands: humus-rich, moist, but well-drained, neutral soil, in partial shade. It is a true sign of spring, blooming well before most other garden perennials. Its bright flowers and light scent seem like a tonic after a long winter. And its lovely, leathery leaves continue to attract attention well into fall.
By Joan Butler