The dainty, white flowers of sharp-lobed hepatica are one of the first of the spring ephemerals to sparkle amid the dull leaf litter in early spring. They grow in tufts of a few or many flowers, each nodding gently on a wiry, reddish stem floating above heart-shaped, sharply-tipped leaves that have persisted through winter. The diminutive flowers--oval sepals form a miniature saucer with a center of fresh-green carpels and white stamens—appear fragile, but sharp-lobed hepatica is a hardy woodland species that grows in a variety of moist, well-drained soils and part to full shade. It emerges early to take advantage of the bright spring sunlight, producing both flowers and seeds before the tree canopy fills in. The secret to this perennial herb’s extremely early bloom time is its hardworking leaves. The three-lobed, emerald-green leaves spend the summer producing carbohydrates that will be stored in the plant’s underground parts. The leaves turn amber in fall and continue their labors through winter, gathering energy and photosynthesizing on mild days, until changing to deep burgundy and gracefully retiring as new leaves unfurl in the spring. The color and shape of the leaves have inspired a number of descriptive common names, including liverleaf, liverwort, kidneywort, and pennywort. Because of the leaves’ likeness to human livers or kidneys, people of the 17th century falsely believed that the plant could heal liver ailments.There is a very similar species with rounded lobes that some authorities refer to as Hepatica nobilis var. americana. Of these two eastern North American natives, H. nobilis var. acuta is much more common in Ohio.
Sharp-lobed hepatica has adapted to survive challenging conditions in several ways. The flower sepals close at night and on cloudy days, a process known as nyctinasty. Some scientists believe this process may keep pollen dry and intact. A covering of soft, dense hairs helps to protect the plant from cold temperatures and drying winds. And because fewer insect pollinators are present in early spring, hepatica entices ants to become partners in pollination. At this time of year, ants don’t have as many food options. The seeds have fatty structures called elaiosomes that emit a chemical that is attractive to ants. The ants feed the elaiosomes to their young, and the seeds germinate later in the ants’ nest.
Sharp-lobed hepatica is an excellent evergreen addition to shady areas of the landscapes and has great visual impact when planted en masse. Although it can tolerate short drought spells, it needs moisture and appreciates occasional watering during the hottest times of the year. Amend the soil with leaves or compost to help with moisture requirements. Hepatica has no serious pest or disease issues.
Native habitats include open or upland woods, rocky slopes, thickets, and meadows. Use in shady beds, borders, rock, and water gardens; in woodland gardens; and in containers. Plant under trees with crocuses, bleeding hearts, wild geraniums, trilliums, and dutchman’s breeches.
Grows 4-6” tall and 6-8” wide.
Performs best in dappled spring light and part to full shade in summer.
Prefers well-drained, humusy soils but adapts to sandy, clay, and rocky soils.
Blooming season is March-May. Flowers are ½-1” across with 5-12 petal-like sepals (usually 6) and numerous white, yellow-tipped stamens surrounding a green center. At the base of each flower are 3 hairy, reddish-brown bracts, each up to 1/3” long. Oblong fruit capsules covered with silky hairs appear in early summer. Hepatica is capable of self-seeding.
Leathery, glossy, three-lobed leaves are 2” wide with dense hairs on the undersides. They are held on long petioles arising from the crown. New leaves emerge after flowering is over.
Honey, small carpenter, andrenid, and halictid bees eat or collect pollen, as do syrphid flies. Spring ephemerals are particularly valuable to emerging queen bumble bees. Chipmunks and rodents eat the fruits. Poisonous basal leaves are not likely to be eaten by animals.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Medieval herbalists used the plant to treat liver diseases. Modern uses include treatments for pimples, bronchitis, and gout.
Caution: Like other Ranunculaceae, sharp-lobed hepatica contains protoanemonin and may cause many side effects when taken orally, including diarrhea, stomach irritation, and kidney and urinary tract irritation. When applied to the skin, fresh hepatica can cause irritation, itching, and pus-filled blisters.
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