What Is It Wednesday: Sharp-lobed Hepatica

Name: Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Also known as: Liverwort and Liverleaf

The Sharp-lobed Hepatica is a native woodland plant that blooms very early in the spring. Throughout April to May, the Sharp-lobed Hepatica flowers emerge from the forest floor on hairy, leafless shoots that add clustered splashes of white, pink, purple, or bluish colours to the landscape. Quite deceivingly, the flowers of this plant have no petals. The colourful petal-like objects are actually sepals that frame the flower and sit on top of three green, pointed-tipped bracts. Its leaves are usually a mottled green and have three deep lobes that also have pointed tips, which resemble the shape of a liver.

(Photo Credit: David Wake)

Its liver-shaped leaves were the inspiration behind all of its names. “Liverleaf” and “Liverwort” being quite obvious, and “Hepatica” being derived from the Greek word for liver, “hepar”. This plant occurs throughout Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec in Canada and elsewhere in the US (Figure 1).

Its early spring arrival is due to the fact that its leaves remain active throughout the winter months, conducting photosynthesis and gathering energy when it is sunny and safe to do so. The old leaves stick around until the plant starts to bloom and create new leaves to carry on its winter-surviving legacy.

The Sharp-lobed Hepatica has a few other tricks up its stem for survival. Being part of the Buttercup family, it shares similar traits to its familial connections, most notably its toxic leaves. This reduces the likelihood of being eaten by grazing animals and insects. It also has fine hairs along its stems, bracts, and sometimes its leaves, to make themselves look unappetizing to the passing grazers.

Fun Fact: The Sharp-lobed Hepatica was named at a time when plants shaped like body parts were used to treat the corresponding body parts of a human. In this case, the liver-shaped leaf led doctors to believe it was a good treatment for liver related illnesses.

Figure 1: Range map for Sharp-lobed Hepatica (http://ontariowildflowers.com/main/species.php?id=175#RangeMap).