Today I went out my back
door and noticed that one of my rosebushes was, unexpectedly,
sporting a fresh new flower bud. It was within a day
or so of opening up--small, greenish and obviously defiant
of the season. The bud was an oddity on a rosebush
that is itself an oddity. When I bought the small white-flowered
shrub last summer it had one blossom that was half white
and half red, and looked as if it had been half-dipped
in red paint. Though my February bud was not a "half
and half" flower, I took its appearance as a harbinger
of spring, plucked it, and delivered it to a friend
who shares my belief in such things.
I started thinking about
other early spring flowers-winter aconite, snowdrops
and crocuses. Not long ago I was reintroduced to liverwort
(Hepatica), which has all the virtues of the little
spring-flowering anemones that you see in all the catalogs,
but obviously lacks a big league public relations person.
It is a shame, because hepatica is eminently deserving
of greater renown.
In a world where connections
are so important, hepatica has them. It is a member
of the buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family, like common
buttercup, clematis and hellebore. In truth, single
flowered hepaticas are almost dead ringers for windflowers
(Anemone blanda). The blossoms are petite and daisy-like,
in shades of blue, lavendar, white , rose and pink.
Like many of the earliest flowers, it is a low grower,
unwilling to rise taller than about 12" and expose its
flowers and foliage to cold March winds.
Hepatica acutiloba is a native
American liverwort, occurring naturally in the eastern
part of the continent-at least those parts not yet paved
over. Appearing in March, it has light lavender flowers
and leaves that have three lobes apiece with smooth
tops and slightly fuzzy undersides. In centuries past,
people thought the leaves resembled human livers. Hepatikos
is the Greek word for liver, hence both the botanical
and common names.
Another native liverwort
is Hepatica nobilis var. americana. It is similar to
Hepatica acutiloba, but its leaves are sometimes tinged
with purple, and its flowers can be pale blue or almost
white in addition to lavender. Both types of hepatica
are woodland plants, thriving in light to moderate shade,
and preferring the acid soil common to woodland areas.
Liverwort is truly a plant that you can install then
forget. When you remember it sometime later, chances
are it will be hard at work forming an attractive little
colony--making itjust about perfect for many gardeners.
Like many plants with parts
that supposedly resemble internal organs of the human
body, liverwort has long been used for all kinds of
tonics and potions. The ancient Greeks associated liver
problems with symptoms ranging from indigestion to cowardice,
and dosed sufferers with concoctions made from liverwort
leaves. Native Americans made a similar tea and used
it to calm coughs and ease sore throat pain. Later
on, American hucksters perfected "Dr. Roder's Liverwort
and Tar Syrup", a delightful-sounding patent medicine
sold as a kidney remedy in the 1860's. Needless to
say, modern medicine has abandoned the liverwort bandwagon.
Just because liverwort will
not really fix your liver doesn't mean that it can't
remedy your winter doldrums. For color variation, try
the European Hepatica nobilis var. nobilis 'Pink', which
has the same daisy-like flowers in a rosy hue. Another
European variety, Hepatica transsilvancia has lovely
blue flowers and leaves that can be three or five-lobed.
If you decide to make liverwort
a new passion, you can always seek out some of the Japanese
double varieties, some of which sell for hair-raising
prices. Many of these are bi or tri-colors with flower
forms that resemble dahlias or chrysanthemums rather
than simple daisies. I love 'Aofuku', which one catalog
describes as having "Large white petals that are almost
air brushed over with blue.the blue [is] slightly darker
as you go near the edges and near white in the center."
The central disc is green. If you prefer pink, there
is 'Saichou', which has "a ring of five large pink oval
petals [that] hold a few layers of smaller pointed petals
that are white edged pink with a central light green
stripe surrounding a light yellowish-green center."
Buy hepaticas now,
whether plain or fancy, and you will probably be the
first on your block or perhaps in your town to do so.
Thimble Farms, a Canadian grower, has an excellent selection,
including the highly collectible Japanese varieties.
Contact them at 175 Arbutus Road, Salt S pring Island
V8K 1A3 British Columbia, Canada; (250) 537-5788;