Plant 174

Hepatica nobilis Mill. (Ranunculaceae)



Common names often mislead, so for clarity we refer to the universal scientific name (Latin binomial) of a genus name followed by species epithet. Occasionally however, these names also mislead, as in the case of Hepatica. Anyone unfamiliar with this genus who has a modest knowledge of botanical Latin might first think of 'liverworts' or 'hepatics' (hepatica derives from the Latin hepaticus meaning liver), the most ancient group of land plants, related to the mosses and hornworts (collectively the Bryophytes).

However, Hepaticais a small genus of flowering plants in the buttercup family comprising ten species found in temperate regions of Europe, Asia and North America. The name 'Hepatica' refers to these plants' three-lobed leaves, which to the imaginative eye resemble a human liver. This resemblance inspired early herbalists to prescribe their use in treating ailments of the liver - a good example of the principle of the 'Doctrine of Signatures', whereby God (or Nature) reveals a plant's use to man through its appearance. Now known not to be useless in treating liver disorders, these poisonous plants have been used as diuretics, astringents and to relieve mild pain and inflammation.

Hepaticas are closely related to anemones and some botanists still include Hepatica within a wide concept of the genus Anemone; gardeners too will be more familiar with Anemone hepatica than the various Hepaticaspecies. Of these, Hepatica nobilis is the most widely distributed species and a popular garden plant, in both east and west, which brings welcome colour (blue and violet and less frequently pink) in late winter and early spring.

In Japan, this much loved flower (variety japonica) is known as yukiwariso or 'the breaking snow plant' because its flowers will frequently burst like jewels of colour through the snow before it has melted. This may also account for its other Japanese name 'flower of happiness'. Hepaticas are especially popular in Japan where they have been cultivated since the 18th century and where breeders have selected mutants with double flowers and varieties with a range of petal colours and leaf patterns. Although not as frequent in British gardens, hepaticas are rapidly gaining popularity as a colourful 'design' accompaniment to snowdrops and aconites. But aesthetic qualities aside, the early flowering habit of Hepatica mean they offer a very welcome source of nectar and pollen to the new season's first emerging bumblebees and honeybees - thus bringing happiness to insects and humans alike.

Further reading

Bennett BC 2007. Doctrine of Signatures: An explanation of medicinal plant discovery or dissemination of knowledge? Economic Botany 61: 246-255.

Warren RJ 2011. Temperature cues phenological synchrony in ant-mediated seed dispersal. Global Change Biology 17: 2444-2454.

Simon Hiscock