Meet Me In the Woods: Hepatica americana

(Look, I’ve been listening to a lot of Lord Huron lately and I couldn’t turn down the chance to make a reference)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The snow has melted, spring ephemerals are… ephemering, and woodpeckers are gettin’ it on in the trees.

In my continuing effort to bring you more dumb plant facts, I figured I’d share some of the pictures of what I’ve been seeing in the woods in the past ~week or so.

This is round-lobed hepatica, Hepatica americana. It is a small and oft-overlooked spring ephemeral, found in the first weeks of April here in Massachusetts. For that reason, I like to call it my birthday flower, because it’s one of the few things blooming on April 6! In particular, these pictures were taken in Williamsburg, MA, on April 7th, during my annual “yurtmas” birthday trip.

The name “hepatica” — as you might guess if you’ve ever had to have a hepatic function test — refers to the liver. In some places it also has the common name of “liverwort” (not to be confused with the bryophytes of the same name) or “liverleaf.” So how did it get this name? At least according to the above Wikipedia article:

The word hepatica derives from the Greek ἡπατικός hēpatikós, from ἧπαρ hêpar ‘liver’, because its three-lobed leaf was thought to resemble the human liver.

“Hepatica” on Wikipedia, by way of the OED

*whispers* I don’t think the liver has three lobes, but what do I know.

I’d add this one to my list of “dumb common names,” but listen, the scientific name is dumb, too.

My personal experience with finding hepatica is that they are elusive. For one thing, they are really small — those plants are about 3″ high and the flowers are about the size of a penny. They grow in drifts, but you can walk right by them and never notice them. I’ve had a few instances where I found a single group and then looked down to realize I’d nearly stepped on a few on my way there.

I’m also not entirely certain about what sort of habitats they like. I have often found them growing on hillsides or at the base of trees. The hillsides make sense — they like well-drained soil — but I’m unaware of any symbiosis they might have with particular trees. And even knowing those facts about where to find them… I’ve not had luck finding them in places I might expect to find them.

I know of only one place they grow in my town, and I try to make it there every April. Here are some pics I took last year at that pilgrimage site: Robbs’ Hill Conservation Area in Lunenburg, MA.

In conclusion: stay sneaky, hepatica. If anyone caught on to how beautiful you are, you might be in danger.