The sweetest of spring’s early native flowers has just sprung up along the stepping stones in this Chicago front yard. Liverwort is its common name, but its botanical name, Hepatica, has a pretty ring to it that matches the little plant’s delicate yet stunning beauty.
Right about the time when the familiar, non-native crocuses come out—when the snow has barely cleared—Hepatica sends up hairy stalks bearing droopy buds among the tattered remnants of its winter leaves. Then, all at once, most of the buds turn upward and pop open into a disarmingly brilliant little bouquet of flowers that are made up of white, pink, blue or lavender sepals (not true petals), each flower about an inch across. There is much variation in color among plants but always the stark white stamens surround a center of green carpels. Stamens and carpels represent male and female flower parts, respectively.
This five-inch tall plant has attractive, pointy, three-lobed leaves tinged in purple, though there is a native variety with rounded leaves. While the flowers bloom, last year’s leaves recede, making way for a new set that will grace the woodland garden until they are buried by next winter’s snow.
The accessible, open flowers serve a wide variety of pollinators, including butterflies, moths, bees, flies, and beetles—which is generous of the little plant, because so few flowers are available now to the insects venturing out to find them.
Hepatica, as delicate as it looks, is a tough plant as long as it has a some leaf litter and soil that is well drained. The plant was named because of its prior use as a liver remedy and its constituents include flavonoids and saponins, pharmacologically active compounds. Native Americans used the local species to treat abdominal pains, poor digestion, constipation, and gynecological issues. The genus has species native to eastern North America, northern Europe, and Asia.
If you have a little space under a tree, and you don’t insist on clearing all the leaves in the fall, plant a few Hepatica specimens and prepare to be delighted in the spring by this diminutive beauty that has made its home in the Midwest for thousands of years!
Scientific names: Hepatica nobilis var. acuta