Hepatica species

Left: Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba). Right: Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana).

Those of us who have friends and relatives in more northern areas know that people are jealous of our early flowers. My sister remarked just this week that she thinks that spring is right around the corner for me. That’s not quite true, the official date is still March 19, but I knew what she meant. Often she has snow when I’m finding my first flower of the year, the round-lobed liverwort known as Hepatica americana (formerly Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa). While some years I can find this pale purple flower rising above the deciduous leaf litter in mid-January, it is most reliably blooming in February.

There are actually two species of Hepatica in Georgia. The sharp-lobed species tends to have white flowers and, while both species grow in moist forests, Hepatica acutiloba is found particularly in conjunction with calcareous or mafic rocks. The Pocket at Pigeon Mountain is a wonderful spring field trip to see hundreds of sharp-lobed liverwort, often growing in rock crevices and moss patches, their bright flowers rising high above their still-present but winter-worn leaves.

You might be curious about the common name of this plant. It is related to the concept called the “doctrine of signatures.” This concept, which stretches back thousands of years, considers that a plant offers medicinal value to the condition or body part that it resembles. This article explains it well for hepatica:

For centuries, people have turned to this small rich-woods perennial with hopes of healing hepatic (liver-related) ailments. Its lobed leaves turn purplish as the season progresses, and so in color as well as shape resemble the lobes of the liver. In the late 1800s, gatherers combed the mountains of the southern United States searching for hepatica leaves to sell to purveyors of patent medicines such as Dr. Roder’s Liverwort and Tar Sirup, and Beache’s Vegetable Syrup. Medicine-makers bought around 450,000 pounds of hepatica leaves in 1883 alone. As consumers failed to see results, these medicines gradually ceased production and hepatica populations rebounded. It remains a fairly common early spring wildflower in rich or limey woods.

I think we can all be glad that this early flower is no longer foraged into potential extinction (450,000 pounds of leaves!). Look for it in moist woods and enjoy those early signs of spring.



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