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Hepatica acutiloba DC.

Common name(s): Sharp-lobed hepatica, heart liverleaf, sharp-lobed liverwort, spring beauty, may-flower
Family: Ranunculaceae
Type: Perennial
Size: 12" high
Texture: Medium
Hardiness: Zone 4a USDA
Range: Maine . Quebec . Georgia . Minnesota
Habit in Flower
Select for a larger image!
Introduction:

All the woodland path is broken
    By warm tints along the way
        And the low and sunny slope
When there comes the silent token
    Of an April day
        Blue hepatica!
    "Hepatica" Dora Read Goodale (1866-1915), American

I find it difficult to believe that Hepatica acutiloba hasn't stolen away the hearts of more gardeners worldwide. Those dainty white to pink flowers last for months at a time when little else is blooming, later giving way to beautifully glossy, clean foliage. The blossoms almost remind me of a March-blooming daisy.

It's not a particularly picky plant, although it does need a cold winter to survive and some shade to protect it from the sun's harmful rays. It doesn't hurt to give it some good humus, but this is a plant that will take care of itself. Just let it do its own thing, and you'll be rewarded ten-fold.

A swarm of controversy surrounds the nomenclature of this species discussions have been going on for decades about this plant's parentage and species status. According to Swink & Wilhelm, Steyermark & Steyermark classified H. acutiloba DC. as H. nobilis Mill. var. acuta (Pursh) Steyerm. in 1960. Correspondingly, H. americana DC. was considered to be H. nobilis Mill. var obtusa (Pursh) Steyerm.

The basis for this reclassification was grounded in studies throughout Barrington in Lake County, Illinois, in which the two scientists discovered that H. americana tended to be present on more acid, leached soils at the tops of ravines and slopes, while H. acutiloba was found in more neutral and richer creek bottoms. The boundaries between the two species often crossed, and this intergradation prompted a proposed name change that taxonomists still debate to this day.

Foliage:

Leaves
Broad and heart-shaped, the leaves get up to 2" in breadth and width. They tend to be dark green and leathery with a smooth surface above, although the undersides are covered with dense hairs.

In autumn, the leaves turn shades of russet and purple to persist through winter. It is critical that the leaves remain during the winter months, as the plant continues to use them as a source of nourishment.

Taxonomic description:

3-lobed, acute or acutish, toothed or lobed again, 2" long and broad leathery. Basal and long-stalked, densely pubescent below and smooth above.

Flowers:

Ranging from pale pink or lavender-purple to pure white, these flowers seem to last forever. First opening in mid-March in the Chicago area, they last up to two months before fading. At up to 1" in diameter, they're fairly noticeable. Interestingly enough, this species has no petals, but instead presents showy bracts surrounding a large number of delicate sepals, which in turn frame dainty yellow stamens.

Taxonomic description:

1/2 to 1" across, pale pink-purple or white, in spring. Apetalous, but 6-15 oblong or oval, obtuse, sepals and numerous small yellow stamens central. Perfect, calyx 3-lobed. Borne singularly on upright stalks.

Flowers
H. acutiloba in full bloom    

Select for a larger image!

Fruit:

Supposedly a favorite of chipmunks, the fruit is present appears in early summer. Oblong and sharp-pointed, they can get up to 2" long and are covered with silky hairs.

Taxonomic description:

2" long hairy, oblong, and acute achenes in early summer.

Pathology:

There are few pest or disease problems with H. acutiloba.

Propagation:

Emerging flowers
Emerging H. acutiloba flowers

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This species can be propagated by seed or division.

If grown from seed, they should be stratified for 2-4 weeks or overwinted outdoors in shaded seed beds. The soil mix should be moderately well-drained and semi-rich, but with a neutral pH. Germination should be achieved in 2 weeks if grown between 60° and 70°F. Plants will not bloom until three years older or more.

Division should be performed in autumn. Take care not break off the leaves, as these are necessary as a source of nourishment during winter months. Plant so leaf buds are just at the soil surface, then mulch lightly.

Culture:

Once established, this species is about as low maintenance as you can get. The key to its success is semi-rich soil with a neutral pH. In hot climates, shade is critical, or the plant will burn severely.

Suggested uses:

If you have a shady corner that needs naturalization, use this plant! For some reason we don't see Hepatica used very often in gardens, but it is an excellent early spring bloomer that can brighten any corner.

They are best used in clumps of two or three, or for a greater effect, scattered unevenly beneath tree canopies and in ravines.

Emerging flowers
Day-old flowers      

Select for a larger image!

Companion plants:

Mesic woods:

    Acer saccharum, Fraxinus americana, Ostrya virginiana, Parthenocissus quinquefolia Prunus virginia, Quercus rubra, Sambucus canadensis, Tilia americana, Allium tricoccum, Claytonia virginica, Dentaria laciniata, Dicentra cucullaria, Galium aparine, Geranium maculatum, Hydrophyllum virginianum, Osmorhiza claytonii, Phlox divaricata, Podophyllum peltatum, Sanguinaria canadensis, Sanicula gregaria, Smilacina racemosa, Thalictrum dioicum, Trillium grandiflorum, Trillium recurvatum.

Eastern US associates may also include:

    Dicentra canadensis, Erigenia bulbosa, Erythronium americanum, Euonymus obovatus, Fagus grandifolia, Lindera benzoin, Panax trifolius, Polygonatum pubescens, Polystichum acrostichoides, Ribes cynosbati, Viburnum acerifolium.

Medicinal uses:

Although Hepatica is no longer popular as an herbal remedy, it does act as a mild astringent and diuretic. It is also supposed to stimulate gall bladder production, resulting in limited success as a laxative.

Although the leaves will stop bleeding, they are also extremely irritating to the skin and should not be placed on open wounds. Large doses can produce symptoms of poisoning.

However, not too long ago Hepatica was viewed as the cure-all for most ailments. The Greeks named the plant 'heper', meaning liver (named after the leaf shape), and prescribed it for liver disorders. It was believed that a dose of liverleaf cured all liver diseases or their symptoms: freckles, indigestion, or cowardice.

In North America, Native Americans used the plant as a tea to soothe coughs, irritated throats, and as a wash for sore breasts.

By the 1820's Hepatica had fallen into disuse throughout Europe, but its popularity in America was rapidly growing. In 1859 it was the prime ingredient in "Dr. Roder's Liverwort and Tar Sirup", and was often used as a cure for kidney problems. In the 1883 over 450,000 pounds of dried leaves were harvested for export or domestic use, although its effectiveness was often a reason for debate amongst doctors. For this reason it eventually fell into disuse once again.

References:

  • Britton, Nathaniel Lord and Addison Brown. An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States and Canada, vol II. New York: Dover, 1970.
  • Griffiths, M. The Index of Garden Plants. Portland: Timber Press, 1994.
  • Keville, Kathi. The Illustrated Herb Encyclopedia. New York: Mallard Press, 1991.
  • Marshall, Nina T. The Gardener's Guide to Plant Conservation. Washington D.C: World Wildlife Fund, 1993.
  • Mohlenbrock, Robert H. Guide to the Vascular Flora of Illinois. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1986.
  • Newcomb, Lawrence. Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. Boston: Little Brown, 1977.
  • Swink, Floyd and Gerould Wilhelm. Plants of the Chicago Region. Lisle: Morton Arboretum, 1994.
  • Walters, Dirk R. and David J. Keil. Vascular Plant Taxonomy, Third Edition. Dubuque: Kendall / Hunt, 1977.
  • Wyman, Donald. Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia. New York: MacMillan, 1986.

    • Christopher Lindsey is an avid horticulturalist, computer geek, and the President/CEO of Mallorn Computing, Inc.



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