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Hepatica is a small woodland wildflower commonly referred to as liverleaf. This attractive evergreen plant is a member of the buttercup family and includes about four to ten species. Most all of these species grow from rhizomes. Species in this plant group are native to North America, Europe, and Asia.
There are two species native to North America — the sharp-lobed (H. acutiloba) and round-lobed (H. americana) varieties. The sharp-lobed species has faintly marbled evergreen leaves that are sharply pointed at the tips. While the flowers are usually white, light pink and blue types can be found too. As its name implies, round-lobed hepatica has rounded leaf tips. The flowers of this variety are generally bluish-purple.
There are also two notable species that are commonly found growing in parts of Europe: H. nobilis and H. transsilvanica. The first one, known as Noble liverwort, has green leaves with purple on the undersides and blue flowers. The other Hepatica species has larger foliage and also has blue-colored flowers. H. transsilvanica is considered an effective ground cover plant as well.
The Asian variety H. japonica is thought to be one of the most exceptional in the genus. Flower color in this type is usually more vibrant than others, ranging from blue and purple to rose and white. Hepatica plants get their name from the foliage, which is said to resemble the human liver. Although occasionally referred to as liverwort, this is actually an entirely different plant. In fact, liverwort is a creeping plant from the genus Marchantia.
In addition to its resemblance to liver, the hepatica plant was once used as a medicinal herb for this very reason. In fact, because the plant looked like the human liver, it was often used to treat liver disorders. This, of course, has since been deemed unfounded. Nonetheless, the plant does seem to possess both astringent and diuretic properties.
Native Americans commonly used the plant in tea form to treat sore throats, soothe coughs, and alleviate achy muscles. Plants were also thought to stimulate the gall bladder. Hepatica is actually poisonous in large doses, however. The plants are also irritating to the skin.
While they are normally found growing in deep-shaded woods, hepaticas can also be grown in gardens. They make ideal choices for shady rock gardens and borders. Hepatica plants tolerate various conditions but prefer semi-rich, well-draining soil in partial to full shade. Although they don’t like frost, these hardy plants tolerate snow cover quite well and are even among some of the first plants to bloom in early spring.
Once established, hepaticas require little maintenance. They can be propagated by seed or division; seeds should be chilled prior to planting and germinate within a few weeks. Blooming doesn’t take place for up to three years for seed-grown plants though. Hepaticas are usually divided in fall.