Earlier in the winter I wrote about evergreen ferns, which remained green-leaved all through the winter, even under the snow. They weren’t the only evergreen plant I was seeing. There were also the above, but I was unable to put a name to them, and uncertain even where to start a Google search to ID them. So I made a note of them, but essentially left them at that. Perhaps when they bloomed in the spring I’d be able to get further features for an identification, and didn’t give it any further thought.
The other day, then, I was browsing through my photos from earlier in the year, looking for moth photos from last spring. Mixed in with all my other photos were the wildflower photos I took at around Mother’s Day. And there, in the middle of them, was my mystery plant, abloom with lovely six-petaled white flowers. Naturally, I hadn’t bothered labeling the photo after it had been identified, and it was simply called “wildflowers6”. But I recalled that Jennifer at A Passion for Nature had left a comment on that post with the IDs of all my flowers, so I went back to look it up.
And there it was: Round-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica americana. Thank you, Jennifer! They’re an early-bloomer of deciduous forests. Their evergreen leaves allow them a head start in the spring as they can start photosynthesizing as soon as the winter snow melts off, while other plants need to grow out leaves first. They can be one of the first plants to have flowers out, which allows them to monopolize the early pollinators. Slightly further south from me the first flowers may be out as early as mid-March, but up here they’re more likely to be blooming mid-April to mid-May. Jennifer, who is in New York state, went out last year during the first week of April to look for flowers. Last year she just found buds, but she did actually find some blooms the year before in the waning days of March.
There is a sister species, Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica acutiloba, and in looking at last year’s photo and compare it to this year’s, I begin to think that’s probably what it was. The leaves come to a tapered point compared to the winter leaves in the first photo, and they also match the images Jennifer posted at her site. Depending on who you ask, these two species are sometimes lumped into a single species and simply treated as varieties.
An interesting side-note about Hepatica: the name comes from the three-lobed leaves’ resemblance to the three lobes of the human liver. Early medicine followed the “doctrine of signatures” – they believed that plants would bear a resemblance to the part of the body they treated, and so the liver-like leaves of this plant were used to treat liver ailments. The leaves could be used as an astringent and as a diuretic. I don’t know if it was ultimately effective or not, although some patients may have been cured simply through the power of the placebo. On the other hand, the leaves are toxic in large amounts, so one wouldn’t want to get overzealous…