Sandy’s Garden ... Hepatica

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

The conversation round the dinner table must have been rather less than scintillating.

I found myself moodily gazing at the dinner plate which had carried my excellent main course and was now, with little evidence remaining of the tempting food, awaiting collection to be conveyed to our dishwasher. The pattern was of flowers, a main illustration surrounded by smaller representations of different species; and the seemingly-old botanical drawing which was the principal decoration featured ‘hepatica florib. albis’. I was familiar with the two latter words … florib. – short for ‘floribunda’ – and albis, meaning, respectively, ‘many-flowering’ and ‘white’: but I either didn’t know or couldn’t remember anything about hepatica.

My first attempts to learn something about hepatica floribunda albis were stymied by a complete failure to find any reference to any such flower in print or on the internet: but when, on reflection, I realised that my plate had been decorated with what I thought was an old representation of the plant, I realised that there was every possibility that the name, too, was old and might have been superseded by a more recent term. And I am 99% certain that I am correct in this assumption, for a flower strikingly similar to that shown on the plate is called hepatica nobilis, described in 2004 in a Scottish Rock Garden Nursery Workshop note by Ian Christie as, “A member of the buttercup family and although not a native of Britain the hepatica grows well especially in deciduous woodland even coniferous forests or shady situations. In the wild some species live on limestone while others grow in acid situations but all enjoy the good top dressing of leaf mould which nature provides in autumn.”

Reference to my well-thumbed copy of Collins ‘Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Ireland’ confirmed that hepatica nobilis … the ‘noble liverwort’, for the meaning of ‘nobilis’ needs no explanation and the word hepatica derives from the Greek hepaticus (‘hepar’ means liver), because the three-lobed leaf was thought to resemble the human liver … thrives in woods and scrub on lime and is indeed native to western mainland Europe and much of Scandinavia but not to the United Kingdom. (As a lengthy aside, the comparative prices of books may be judged from the fact that William Henry Pearson’s authoritative study of ‘The Hepaticae Of The British Isles: Being Figures And Descriptions Of All Known British Species’, first published in hardback in1902, was on offer from the publisher a few years later in a ‘new and cheaper issue. Complete in 2 Vols., with 228 Plates, plain, £5 5s.; coloured, £7 10s.’ That price of £7.50 for the ‘cheaper’ issue equates to more than £600 today!)

Whatever, the so-called doctrine of signatures, which dates from the time of Dioscorides and Galen in the first two centuries of the Christian era, states that herbs resembling various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those body parts. This led to hepatica being used to treat liver disorders. There is one sense in which hepatica would have dealt with such ailments, for its leaves are poisonous in large amounts and an over-enthusiastic herbalist would have cured patients by killing them! The herb was once used externally to treat slow healing wounds, minor injuries, ringworm and sunburn and to get rid of freckles: but it is very seldom used in contemporary herbal medicines and … as ever … I am neither endorsing nor recommending its use in any medicinal application.

Hepatica will tolerate sunshine or shade; it needs moist soil and likes snow but does not enjoy dry frost; so yes, it might well grow in my garden were I to want a plant of the buttercup family … think spreading roots … and give seedlings several years to flower.