Bedford Audubon Society

A Northern Westchester & Eastern Putnam Counties, New York
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Celebrating 98 Years of Conservation 1913-2011


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Hepatica,
The Other First Flower of Spring
By Carol Gracie

Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa
Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa
With round lobes

In the Spring 2006 issue of the Bedford Audubon Society Newsletter, I wrote about the first native wildflower to bloom each year in the Westchester/Putnam regionskunk cabbage. In fact, skunk cabbage often begins flowering as early as February when snow still covers the ground. However, to many people skunk cabbage just doesn’t fit their concept of what a wildflower should look like—it’s not small, delicate, or pastel colored. In our area, the first flower to bloom that conforms to the more typical image of a spring wildflower is hepatica, usually flowering in early April. Many of our native woodland wildflowers are found in bloom before the trees leaf out. This strategy allows the wildflowers to utilize the sun’s energy to photosynthesize and, thus, make carbohydrate while the sun’s rays are still able to penetrate to the forest floor. In some plants (e.g. trout lily and Dutchman’s breeches), the plants are truly ephemeral. That is, they complete the production of leaves, flowers, and fruits within a very short time period and then disappear until the following spring. The carbohydrate made by the leaves is stored in their underground tubers or corms.

In the case of hepatica, the leaves produced in the spring of one year remain on the plant throughout the year and into the next spring’s blooming period. The leaves may photosynthesize to a minor extent on warm winter days and are ready to begin full photosynthesis before the leaves of other plants have even appeared. Thus, hepatica is able to produce its flowers earlier than other spring wildflowers. The old leaves wither only after the flowers have begun to form fruits and new leaves are produced. By May, fresh green leaves unfurl and begin to capture the sun’s energy once again to manufacture carbohydrates for the coming year’s growth.

Hepatica nobilis var. acuta
Hepatica nobilis var. acuta
With pointed lobes

When I first learned about wildflowers, it was thought that there were two species of hepatica in the Northeast, one with rounded lobes, found in our local woodlands, and one with pointed lobes, found more frequently in mountainous regions and not commonly seen along the eastern seaboard. It has now been determined that the two formerly separate species are actually subspecies of Hepatica nobilis, a species that also occurs in Europe. Both subspecies of hepatica prefer a limier soil than is usually encountered in our area, though the round-lobed hepatica is more tolerant of a range of soil types. To find hepatica, it’s best to look in places underlain by limestone or marble—or among old Indian shell middens, as can be found along the Hudson River.

It’s from the leaves that both the scientific name, Hepatica, and the common name, liver-leaf, originated. The leaves are lobed and typically become a deep burgundy color as they age, attributes that reminded people of the shape and color of a liver. Early herbalists often looked to a plant to give some sign of what it might be used for, a belief called the Doctrine of Signatures. In the case of hepatica, the resemblance of its dark, lobed leaves to a human liver indicated that it should be efficacious in treating diseases of the liver. Thus, in the late 1800s, hundreds of tons of the leaves, usually of the sharp-lobed hepatica, were gathered for use in patent medicines. Demand was so great that additional quantities of the dried leaves had to be imported from Germany. Analysis of the chemical constituents of the plants has not found any components with documented medicinal value.

Hepatica flower stalks emerge clothed in a protective “fur coat” to help insulate them from the cool temperatures that prevail in early April. Both flower stalks and the young leaves clustered at their base are covered in these downy hairs. The flowers are usually produced before the new leaves expand. The dark leathery leaves from the previous season help to make the plant somewhat easier to spot among the brown leaf litter. Both forms of hepatica may have leaves with a mottled pattern.

Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa   Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa

The colorful parts of the flower are not petals but, rather, sepals. What appear to be three sepals just beneath the flower are actually modified leaves called bracts. By looking carefully, one can see that the bracts are not attached immediately beneath the colorful flower parts as they would be if they were sepals. This is one character used to separate the genus Hepatica from the closely related Anemone. The round-lobed varieties obtusa and the pointed-lobed subspecies acuta may both be found in a range of colors from white to pink to light lavender to—my favorite—deep lavender blue. The flowers close on cloudy days and at night to protect their pollen when pollinators are not apt to be flying. However, the cold temperatures of early April mean that there are not many potential pollinators flying about anyway. Fortunately, hepatica has the ability to self-pollinate and produce seed without the aid of insects.

Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa   Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa

As in many spring ephemeral species of Northeastern woodlands, the seeds of hepatica have a small, fleshy appendage called an elaisome. Ants collect and carry the seeds back to their nests where they consume the lipid-rich elaisomes and then discard the seeds. The seeds are carried some distance from the parent plants and usually discarded in the nutrient-rich refuse heap of the ant colony. Rodents that dine on the seeds are less likely to find all of them if they are removed from the proximity of the mother plants, thus the ants perform a service for the plants by ensuring the survival of some of the seeds.

Hepatica nobilis obtusa with new leaves
Hepatica nobilis var. acuta
New leaves

        

Hepatica nobilis var. acuta bracts
Hepatica nobilis var. acuta
Bracts

Hepatica is a member of the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup family. When Linnaeus published his Species Plantarum in 1753, in which he gave two-part names to species of plants and animals, he used the name Anemone for the genus of hepatica. Throughout the years hepatica has been placed back and forth again from Anemone to Hepatica by different taxonomists. Botanists currently place these plants in Hepatica.

Hepatica nobilis var. acuta with shells
Hepatica nobilis var. acuta
Bracts

        

Hepatica nobilis obtusa-Hairy Leaves
Hepatica nobilis var. acuta
Hairy Leaves

See Carol Gracie's Scenes of the Seasons - Spring
and
See Carol Gracie's Skunk Cabbage—The First Flowers of Spring

Photos Courtesy of and Copyright © by Carol Gracie
cgracie@optonline.net

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