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 Spring Island V8K 1A3 British Columbia, Canada; (250) 537-5788;