Hepatica: My First Wildflower of Spring

By Ted Watt Gazette Contributing Writer

Every year around April 15 I go to my favorite (and secret) spot to find hepaticas in bloom. I spend time there all by myself; it’s an antidote to filing my taxes and the many other complexities of everyday life.

The plants are on the west face of a traprock ridge, their delicate blossoms shivering in the April wind and pale afternoon sun. The surrounding landscape is still dominated by winter browns and grays, and the snows have recently melted. The blooms, held less than six inches above the ground, range from a clean white through pale pinks to lavenders to a deep lavender-purple. They grow amid loose basalt talus that has fallen from the small cliff above.

It is not a gentle setting—the access is steep and you have to clamber around the base of the cliff. There’s a porcupine den six feet from the hepaticas and later on wild columbine will bloom on the cliff face above. It’s not remote but it feels far from the hustle and bustle. Some years the call of a Louisiana waterthrush tumbles up from the stream valley below. And most years I hear spring peepers and wood frogs calling in the pools below.

I like to think of plants as purposefully seeking to reproduce themselves—getting their flowers pollinated, producing seeds and dispersing those seeds away from the parent plant. Different plants employ different strategies to accomplish these goals. The solutions by which each species accomplishes these goals are varied and demonstrate each species’ adaptation to their particular habitat.

Hepaticas are brightly colored and lightly scented to attract early flying insect pollinators. I have seen honeybees and flies moving among the blossoms. After fertilization the seeds are held on vertical stems in little clusters. When the seeds are ripe, a structure called an eliasome appears on the outside of the seeds’ coats. This structure is rich in fats and attracts ants that carry the seeds to their nests, where they consume the fatty tissue, and discard the seeds in perfect locations for germination. Here is a finely tuned and reliable means of seed dispersal—as long as the right ant species are present.

Classification of our hepatica species in North America, as well as globally, is undergoing revision due to rapid advances in plant genetic mapping and biochemistry. In fact, some botanists now refer to hepaticas as anemones. These changes in plant taxonomy demonstrate the latest understandings of relationships between plants and are important in our deepening understanding of evolution. But it’s still not going to be easy for me to call hepaticas by any other name.

Each year I observe my ritual, making my annual pilgrimage. I wouldn’t miss it—my private celebration and reminder to notice what an incredible gift the cycle of the seasons and the arrival of spring is for us living in temperate climes. These delicate blossoms survived the freezing temperatures of winter and were just waiting for the right conditions to burst forth in their tender beauty. I’m looking forward to visiting my first wildflower of spring.

Ted Watt is an educator/naturalist at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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