The first truly showy woodland flower
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in May 2005.
Hepatica doesn’t display the earliest flowers that bloom each year. Those of bitter cress, henbit, purple dead nettle, bird’s-eye speedwell, and others appear in open moist sunny spots by late January or early February. But to my way of thinking, year in and year out, hepatica is the earliest of the truly showy woodland wildflowers. Trailing arbutus has a reputation in this regard. One often reads of those who discover it blooming under late snows. But I hardly ever observe arbutus doing much more than budding before April. Hepatica can still be found in bloom in early May in the higher elevation hardwood forests.
Some botanical authorities maintain there is but one species of hepatica (Hepatica noblis) in North America. I agree, however, with those botanists — like University of Tennessee botanist B. Eugene Wofford, author of Guide to the Vascular Plants of the Blue Ridge (1989) — who assert that there are two distinct species. Both are found in Western North Carolina. The most common is sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba). As its scientific and common names indicate, each leaf of this species displays three pointed leaf lobes. The less common species is round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana), which has rounded, almost blunt, leaf lobes.
As early as February, hepatica’s three to eight flowering heads emerge on hairy stems that stand three- to six-inches high. These display petals, which may or may not be scented, that can be white, pink, rose, lavender, or a shimmering electric blue. Jack Sanders noted in The Secret of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History (2003) that, “The hairy stems probably have two purposes: warmth and defense. They may also dissuade ants from climbing to the flowers and stealing the nectar.”
Woodland flowers that appear very early each spring have the advantage of obtaining abundant sunlight before the leaf canopy closes in overhead by late spring. They also have less competition for pollinating insects. A negative aspect of this strategy is that few potential pollinators are out in force so early — and hepatica is apparently not one of their favorites. Researchers have found that other early-flowering plants like trout lily, cut-leaved toothwort, and wood anemone tend to attract more bees and other insects. In order to hedge its bets, hepatica produces a percentage of flowers each year that are self-fertilized.
The generic designation Hepatica means, in Latin, "pertaining to the liver." This referred to the shape and color patterns of the second-year leaves, which — as retired Western Carolina University botanist Jim Horton described them in The Summer Times (1979) — “have generally turned a rather lurid purplish brown and, being three-lobed, suggest the liver.” Accordingly, the plant is often called liverleaf and serves as a textbook example of a concept known as The Doctrine of Signatures. Early plant collectors and herbalists putting this concept into practice took their lead from Paracelsus, the sixteenth century Swiss physician who taught that God stamped each medicinally useful plant with a sign or signature that conveys to mankind the appropriate use to which the plant should be put. Numerous plant names — both scientific and common — are based on this practice.
The lobed and purplish-brown leaves of hepatica seemingly indicated that the plant was "signed" for liver ailments. Jack Sanders noted that during the nineteenth century hepatica treatments were all the rage — so much so, that in 1883 alone patent-medicine manufacturers utilized “more than 200 tons of hepartica leaves.” Leaf extract administered to those suffering from "torpid liver" or "black bile” (melan cholo) no doubt induced more melancholy that it alleviated. It was even prescribed for kidney, bladder, and lung ailments. Older readers of this column will recall Sal Hepatica (“liver salt”), which was at one time an enormously popular home remedy for constipation — but it just used the name, not the plant. And a brew made from hepatica leaves was even prescribed for those suffering from cowardice and freckles, as those two maladies were thought to be liver connected.