Saturday, March 19, 2016

Flower of the Month: March

Spring is at the door as I write this latest post.  Winter has been very busy and I have not had adequate time to just sit and write, nor have ideas been very forthcoming.  I am finding that maintaining a blog only works if you have something to talk about.  It's a good thing spring is practically here because now...I have something I can talk about:  WILDFLOWERS!

I thought it might be kind of cool to pick a flower for each month and write a little bit about it.  Hickory Nut Gorge is so rich in its diversity that finding a candidate for each month is not very difficult.  What is difficult is deciding which one to highlight because they are all so wonderful.  For March I am picking a particular genus because it only has two species that occur here and they bloom at the same time.  My choice is Hepatica.

Hepatica, also known by its other common names liverleaf and liverwort (common names which actually reflect the Latin name), is one of our less conspicuous spring ephemerals.  Spring ephemerals are plants that have very short "air time."  In other words, they produce their leaves, stems, flowers, and fruit over a very short period of time, usually a few days to two or three weeks.  Once they flower and reproduce many of the external structures quickly die back and the remainder of plant (usually leaves and what's underground) will continue to thrive, surviving on accumulated starch found within the tuber, corm, or similar structure.  Hepatica is an example of a spring ephemeral.

Flowers of Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis-obtusa)
 A member of the Buttercup Family (Ranunculaceae), Hepatica receives its name from its basal leaves which are three-lobed and loosely resemble our own three-lobed organ, the liver.  Hepatica's fuzzy flowering stems emerge first, surrounded by last year's mostly brown, sometimes green, often mottled leaves.  Shortly after flowering, the leaves, which are also covered in fuzz, come out to replace the leaves from the previous year.  The flowers have a very short bloom time, generally no more than a few days and will vary in color from lavender to pink to white, depending on the species.  After reproduction occurs, the plant will quickly go to seed, leaving only the fleshy leaves which will continue to photosynthesize as long as they remain green.

Last year's leaves of Round-lobed Hepatica.
Hepatica has been the subject of some taxonomic debate.  One consensus has been to lump the genus Hepatica into the genus Anemone which has some other physiologically similar species associated with it. However, unlike Anemones, hepatica does not have petals.  The "petals" are actually sepals and what appears to be sepals are actually bracts that cover the flower buds.  Prior to its latest taxonomic re-classification, the genus Hepatica was represented by two distinct species in North Carolina:  Hepatica acutiloba and Hepatica americana.  More recently, the consensus among most taxonomist is that the two species are actually two subspecies of Hepatica nobilis, a species that also exists in Europe.  The two subspecies are appropriately named round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa) and sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis var. acuta), with one having rounded lobes on the leaves and the other having sharp.

Hepatica has an interesting history in herbal lore that goes back to the historical Doctrine of Signatures, a concept that was developed by Paracelsus.  The Doctrine of Signatures basically states that things in nature are marked with a sign that signifies their purpose.  In the plant world that might mean that if a leaf is shaped like a kidney, then the plant would be good for kidney ailments.  A plant with heart-shaped leaves would be used to treat cardiac ailments.  You get the idea.

Flowers of Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis-acuta)
 Naturally, because hepatica leaves are shaped like the human liver, it was assigned the Latin name, Hepatica which means "liverwort" or "liver leaf" and for many, many years it was (and probably still is) used by practitioners of folk medicine in the treatment of liver and blood ailments.  Of course, there is no scientific evidence to support such treatment, as none of the chemicals associated with hepatica are relevant for treating liver ailments, but hepatica is reputed to have astringent and diuretic qualities, owing to the mild alkaloids that are found within the plants.  Hepatica, like many of the Buttercup Family members, is considered poisonous in large doses.

Last year's leaves of Sharp-lobed Hepatica.
Hepatica will only be around for about another week before the flowers are gone for the season.  It generally occurs in rich woods, often on steep slopes and near streams.  Sharp-lobed hepatica tends to prefer the soils of the mountains and is mostly confined to mountain counties, but manages to creep into rich sites in the mountains of Rutherford County (not generally considered a mountain county).  Round-lobed hepatica is the more common of the two species and is generally found in the Piedmont and coastal plain of North Carolina.  Two great places to find hepatica are Buffalo Creek Park in Lake Lure where round-leaf hepatica can be found, and Bat Cave Preserve where sharp-lobed hepatica can be seen growing among the spring beauties (Claytonia caroliniana).  Get out in the woods and check them out.  Until next time!

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