Friday, as I zoomed through the office, Gary gave me a note saying the round-lobed hepatica were blooming. I didn’t have a chance until Sunday to go out and see for myself.
We have a patch of ground not far from the building where staff and volunteers are working at establishing native wildflowers. The challenge here is the deer, which leave no plant un-nibbled. In fact, I had looked for the hepatica earlier in the week, and the leaves I’d seen previously were gone, down the gullet of a deer, no doubt.
So I was eager to see the flowers Gary mentioned. The sunny spring weather was retreating, with grey skies and blustery winds taking over. I didn’t have high hopes of seeing any flowers open.
I finally managed to find a cluster – the leaves catching my attention first. There are two kinds of hepatica here in North America: round-lobed (Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa) and sharp-lobed (H. n. var. acuta). The botanists in the crowd might question the scientific names – please note that last year the botanical consortium in charge of names
changed updated the names of many many plants, including hepaticas.
Anyway, looking at the leaves, we see that they are rounded at the ends, so we know this is round-lobed, also known as liverleaf, or even liverwort (“wort” being the old English word for plant, having nothing to do with lumpy growths on hands, feet, etc.). In fact, the genus of this plant (Hepatica) refers to this very same thing: liver. And why? Because people thought the leaves resembled the liver (pretty simple).
Back in the Middle Ages there was a book called the Doctrine of Signatures in which were listed many many plants and their significance in the world of medicine. These supposed healing properties were based on the simple concept that if a plant had a part that resembled some part of the human anatomy, it must be good for curing ailments of said part. Thus, hepatica was believed to be a cure-all for liver complaints. In truth, this plant is a known poison, if taken in large doses. However, like many things, in small amounts it does have some healing properties, such as acting as an astringent and a diuretic.
I ended up finding three small patches of the flowers, each huddled over and facing the ground. It was too chilly and grey for them to be open.
It is believed that the furriness of this plant, and many other early spring flowers, serves to provide additional protection from the cold. No doubt the active growth of the plant generates some heat, and the woolly hairs trap the air next to the plant, essentially keeping the heat next to the fragile leaves and flowers, rendering some protection from falling temperatures, snow and ice.
It is well worth returning after the spring warms up properly to see see these purple flowers in full bloom.