Common Name: Hepatica, Liverwort, Kidneywort, American liver leaf, Kidney liver leaf, Liver weed, Trefoil, Herb trinity – The hepatica is one of the few flowers that is known more commonly by its genus name Hepatica.
Scientific Name: Hepatica americana – The generic name is the feminine form of hepaticus, which is Latin for “of the liver.” The three-lobed leaves that persist after the blossom has expired are reminiscent in shape and color of a mammalian liver. Also known as Anemone americana, Anemone nobilis, Hepatica triloba, and Hepatica nobilis; the USDA plants data base lists two variants, the Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa (round-leaved) and H. nobilis var. acuta (sharp-leaved). Most books use H. americana as indicated here
Potpourri: The hepatica is one of the first flowers to blossom in the spring, often preceding the vernal equinox that marks the beginning of the season. One would surmise this to be a survival strategy targeted at pollinators that would have no other source of nectar at that time of year; the hepatica would effectively monopolize the woodland market. However, hepaticas are self-pollinating, perfect flowers that have both male pollen and female ovaries; they have no need for external pollinators. This is just as well – there are few, if any, pollinators flitting about the mountains in winter. The beauty of the hepatica efflorescence has inspired paeans of praise. John Burroughs, the noted American Naturalist, wrote in his book America that there is “….nothing fairer, if as fair, the first flower, the hepatica. I find I have never admired this little firstling half enough when at the maturity of its charms, it is certainly the gem of the woods.”
There are two other features of the hepatica that are noteworthy. The first is that they come in a surprisingly broad spectrum of colors. Again according to Burroughs “what an individuality it has! No two clusters alike; all shades and sizes some are snow-white …. some deep purple, others the purest blue.” The second anomaly is that some hepaticas are fragrant and some have no discernible scent (to humans at least – which is not to say much about what they may smell like to insects). I will again leave the metaphors to Burroughs, who opines that “the gift (of scent) seems as capricious as the gifts of genius in families.” I would offer that there is likely a correspondence between the coloration, the scent and the degree to which they do or don’t depend on pollinators. Clearly those that do would be more likely scented with a color that was attuned to the senses of the target species.
The name hepatica was first given to the flower in the early 18th Century by the German botanist Johann Jacob Dillenius due to its liver shaped leaves (hepar is the Greek word for liver). Carolus Linnaeus, the father of botanical classification, included it in the genus Anemone (as A. hepatica) in the seminal Species Plantarum in 1753. Both plants are in Ranunculaceae, the Buttercup Family, so there is some rationale for this alternative assignation. Hepatica is sometimes listed generically as Anemone with a variety of species names, particularly in European references. The main point is that the hepatica was initially associated with the liver due to its appearance, a fact that led to protracted medicinal confusion that continues to the present.
The rationale for the notion that” if it looks like a liver it must be good for the liver” comes from a theory called the Doctrine of Signatures. Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim received a baccalaureate in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1510, where he reached the then radical conclusion that the prevailing medical view of the human body as being governed by astrology was specious. He adopted the name Paracelsus (by which he is known historically) from “para-Celsus,” beyond Celsus, the noted Roman physician, to suggest that he was the greater of the two. Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) was an autodidact German cobbler influenced by the works of Paracelsus; he believed that God must have revealed himself in the things that he created on earth since this was the only way that humans could have any knowledge of His true being. He published his ideas in De Signatura Rerum, the Signature of All Things, establishing therein that “the greatest understanding lies in the signature, wherein man … may learn to know the essence of all essences; for by the external form of all creatures … the hidden spirit is known” In the 17th Century, the doctrine of signatures suggested by Paracelsus and codified by Boehme gripped the imagination of early apothecaries and herbalists, resulting in provocative declarations as to the medicinal efficacy of likely looking plants, among them hepatica.
Nicholas Culpepper is the most well-known of the English herbalists; he wrote the first comprehensive review of wild plants that were useful for treating maladies. The 1653 edition of “The Complete Herbal” contains the following entry:
Hepatica, Lichen. Liverwort, cold and dry, good for inflammations of the liver, or any other inflammations, yellow jaundice
The use of lichen and liverwort in the same description with hepatica is confusing, probably reflecting an inchoate comprehension of plant and fungal differentiation. There are earlier accounts of the use of some form of natural herb to treat liver problems; the name liverwort was used to reflect the association. The herb in question was likely a bryophyte (non-vascular plant) as the Marchantiophyta division of bryophytes – about 7,000 species – are called liverworts; it is not unlikely that the “plant” in question was thought to be a lichen (a mutualistic association of an alga and a fungus) as they can be similar in appearance. Regardless, Culpeper’s work became the fons et origio for most if not all subsequent herbals and established the supposed efficacy of hepatica as liver medicine.
Native Americans, having no knowledge of the Doctrine of Signatures and likely little knowledge of the functions of the liver, had other uses for hepatica, a fact that led to a somewhat different perspective of the flower as a medicinal in the New World. The roots were used by Chippewa after boiling them down to make a syrupy admixture to treat convulsions in children and by the Potawatomi by making a tisane to treat dizziness. James Mooney, an ethnographer who lived with the Cherokee for several years in the late 19th Century, wrote that they used hepatica mixed with walking fern for “those who dream of snakes” to induce vomiting “after which the dreams do not return.” Huron Smith, who lived among the Fox or Meskwaki in the early 20th Century, reported that they used hepatica to treat facial convulsions. As different tribes used it for different purposes, probably with other ingredients, it is probable that it had at best a minor, and perhaps, a placebo effect.
The use of hepatica by Native Americans in conjunction with the historical use of it in the Old World for liver disorders gave the flower a somewhat different medicinal and cultural trajectory in the Americas. C. S. Rafinesque established hepatica as a significant medicinal herb as Plate 48 in the seminal 1828 Medical Flora, or Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America. Describing it as “Scentless and nearly insipid, not bitter; but a little astringent and mucilaginous,” he ascribes a rather astounding range of conditions that hepatica has and should be used for:
“It was formerly used in fevers, liver complaints, indigestion, cachexy (general physical wasting), hypochondria and hernia. It has lately been brought to notice in America for hemoptysis and coughs; it has been used in Virginia with benefit in the form of a strong infusion, drunk cold. It may be serviceable in hepatitis and hepatic phthisis, as well as all complaints arising from dyspepsia and hypochondric affections; it may be used as a tea, warm or cold and adlibitum (‘as you would like to’ – i. e. for anything else); but it has no effect on the lungs beyond that of a mild demulcent astringent.”
Hepatica appeared in the United States Pharmacopeia in 1833 and was carried in it through fifteen editions until 1883, when it was removed. During the intervening years, the rise and fall of hepatica as a medicine parallels the flagrant hucksterism of various so-called patent medicines extolled by itinerant snake-oil salesmen. Hepatica was made into syrup that was sold to cure coughs, and, based on Rafinesque’s work, probably anything else; one example is Dr. Rogers’ Liverwort and Tar. By the year 1883, over 450,000 pounds of hepatica leaf were gathered in North America or imported from Europe to meet the demand. The irony is that hepatica has almost no medicinal compounds, containing only the most mundane and plebian of chemical compounds and likely would have no effect on the maladies for which it has been used.
Regardless of its dubious medicinal past, it is a beautiful springtime blossom that has caught the eye of poets and lovers. John Burroughs wrote “Hepatica” in tribute. The first two stanzas are idyllic:
When April’s in her genial mood,
And leafy smells are in the wood,
In sunny nook, by bank or brook,
Behold this lovely sisterhood.
A spirit sleeping in the mold,
And tucked about by leafage old,
Opens an eye blue as the sky,
And trusting takes the sun or cold.
According to Appalachian Mountain lore, a girl can win the love of any beau by sprinkling some powder made from Hepatica leaves dried by a fire over his clothing.