From 1830 to 1844, while farmers in New England were razing forests to expand pasture for sheep, Japanese on the other side of the world were celebrating the delicate beauty of a small forest plant. This plant was the hepatica, called misumisō 三角草 or “triangulate plant” in Japan, after the triangular lobes of the leaves.
Apparently, Japanese collected hepaticas with flowers of different colors and forms, breeding them and competing to produce rare specimens (see Kimura Yōjirō, Hana to ki no jiten, 432). I have to admit that I have caught a bit of this hepatica fever myself, though I am content to visit wild specimens for now.
Our Hepatica Hunt
Last weekend, my girlfriend and daughter joined me on a hepatica hunt in Mt Holyoke Range State Park, in Massachusetts. Some hepaticas blossom as early as mid April, so I was worried that we would be too late. Indeed, the first plant we encountered had long since finished blooming and had formed seeds. A little further along the path, however, I found one still in bloom, though the blossoms had been partially eaten by insects.
Finally, in a cooler spot down lower on the mountain, we spotted the three delicate blue flowers in the above image. Nearby was a white hepatica, growing beside a tree. These flowers are so understated, so beautiful. For these few weeks of early spring, when the trees are still mostly bare and very little has emerged yet from the leaf litter, the hepatica has its moment. I feel lucky to have caught it this year.
One can find good hepatica spots for spring viewing by locating the plants in summer, when the distinctive leaves are easy to recognize. This photo is from early July.
A Flower by Any Other Name…
Hepaticas are members of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. Botanists seem to disagree on whether to place these flowers in the genus Anemone or in Hepatica. The ones we saw are probably Anemone hepatica, aka Hepatica nobilis. Whether to call them anemones or hepaticas is not clear. I have also seen them referred to as liverwort or kidneywort, which seem disgraceful names for such a lovely plant.
Other wildflowers were also blossoming along the trail, including another “anemone,” a white wildflower called rue anemone, Thalictrum thalictroides, which was once considered to belong to the Anemone genus.
We may be confused about how to name these spring wildflowers, but the flowers are not. Each spring they lift their little faces to the warm spring light, glad that their forest habitats have returned to New England.
Rue anemone, Thalictrum thalictroides
The hepaticas we found this year were very small. The size, color, and shape of the petals can vary.
Eastern red columbine, Aquilegia canadensis
A Canadian tiger swallowtail, Papilio canadensis, visits the flowers of a wild cherry tree.