Round-lobed Hepatica

Hepatica americana. Early spring flowers can cheer the winter-weary with the first signs of the new season’s life, but they can also provide fascinating examples of nature’s survival techniques. The beautiful and seemingly delicate Round-lobed Hepatica is just such a survivalist. When the buds, stems and leaves push through the leaves — or even the snow, they bear many little hairs that probably serve two purposes: warmth and defense. Botanists believe hairs help keep frost from the main flesh of the plant. Hairs are also believed to be distasteful to herbivores, especially small mammals that might dine on this early vegetation. Hepatica leaves are long-lasting, remaining through the season but turning a rust color by late in the summer. Over the winter, they shelter the ground for the following season’s new growth. In the spring, the old leaves may help warm the ground for that new growth; the rust color is a shade that efficiently absorbs sunlight. The color and shape of the leaf are also responsible for the name of the plant: It’s liver-like — hepatica is from the Greek for “liver.” Many people believed that because the leaves look like liver, that’s a sign from God that they are good for liver ailments, and hepaticas were long used by many cultures as a liver disease treatment and tonic. Hepatica americana blossoms may appear in several colors, including white, pink, lavender, purple, and blue, each in a pastel shade that seems too delicate for the harsh weather of early spring. The colors attract early bees, butterflies, flies, and, of course, spring hikers.

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