Spring Beauty of the Woodlands: Round-lobed Hepatica

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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My love affair with a delicate spring wildflower, the round-lobed hepatica, transports memories back to my nature-embracing, hill-trekking, wide-eyed freshman days at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. The farm fields, meadows and wooded hillsides of the Green Mountain State became my nature discovery center. Seasons in Vermont progressed rapidly. Winter melted into maple sugar and mud season, and the amazing ephemeral wildflower season then followed. I quickly discovered hepatica my first spring in Vermont. Hepatica was a wild and free flower, so unlike what I knew from my suburban home, with closely cropped grass and flowers planted in neat rows. In Vermont, hepatica was called liverleaf, and it was this wildflower, that is now approaching peak bloom in the dappled sunlight of the oak woods on the Wilder Side of Oakland County, that helped set me on the path I still follow.

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Liverleaf. It’s not really that strange a name for a wildflower if one notes the almost leathery feeling, brownish-purple, three-lobed leaf. When the lobes are looked at individually, they do bear a resemblance to a human liver. Early herbalists looked at plant shape and form to decide what might be good for medical use by following the “Doctrine of Signatures”, or as described in Medicinal Plants of North America by Jim Meuninck, “Like treats like.” For example, if anything related to the liver, gallbladder or kidney might be the problem, hepatica leaves just might be the cure. The practice was widespread and dried leaves of hepatica were in great demand. Modern research has conflicting information on the suggested medicinal value for this woodland beauty, but has revealed that consuming large amounts is indeed dangerous. Additionally, some people will acquire contact dermatitis by simply handling the plant.

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The round-lobed hepatica, a native wildflower of Oakland County, is something of a habitat specialist. Translation? Habitat specialists require very specific habitat conditions to thrive and will not do well as a garden ornamental. In our area it thrives in scattered pockets under our extensive canopy of oak trees. The blossoms open wide soon after the last snow melt – this year it was six days after the last snowfall – and they only bloom for a week or two. Go for a woodland walk this weekend or next week under the oaks that dominate much of the wilder landscape in our Huron-Clinton Metroparks, Oakland County Parks and Michigan DNR State Recreation Areas. More likely than not, you will discover the colorful blooms of hepatica hidden away in plain sight, among dry oak leaves on wooded hillside slopes. Many smaller woodland parks, including the West Bloomfield Woods Nature Preserve and Orchard Lake Nature Sanctuary provide prime hepatica habitat, as do shady sections of the Paint Creek, Polly Ann and Clinton River Trails. Although most often the blossoms are various shades of blue, they may be white or appear in pale hues of pink or even lavender. You won’t be the only one looking for this beauty that confirms spring is here to stay. Flying insects and bees are the primary pollinators, so be sure to look before you sniff.

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Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County. 

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