March 31, 2020
The first flowers to appear in our gardens are all introductions from
Europe and Asia that don’t know that even the end of March can still be
quite winter-like in Wisconsin. Our native plants understand that it is
risky to push the season, but crocuses, daffodils and snowdrops are
amazingly hardy and usually survive the almost certain freezes and even
snow storms that sometimes continue to plague us well into April.
Crocuses are native to central and southern Europe, North Africa and
the Middle East, across Central Asia to western China. Daffodils
come from the Mediterranean region, in particular to the Iberian
Peninsula, as well as Northern Africa and the Middle East.
Snowdrops can be found across a large area of Europe, stretching from
the Pyrenees in the west, through France and Germany to Poland in the
north, Italy, Northern Greece and European Turkey.
Some of our native plants here in the southwestern hills of Wisconsin
sometimes do appear in late March—the first usually being the
hepatica. (Skunk cabbage is often earlier but can only be found
in the wet marshes). Our plants thrive in the rich soil on the wooded
hillsides and each year we marvel at how they have spread but it may
grow in a wide range of conditions from deeply shaded deciduous
woodland and scrub to sunny grassland.
Hepatica received its name from its leaves, which, like the human
liver, have three lobes (the Greek word for liver is hepar). Before the
advent of modern medicine, humans found that some plants seemed to help
a variety of maladies and diseases. Such uses were probably first
recognized in ancient China, where they correlated plant features to
Yang (primitive male) was associated with strongly acting plants and
ailments of the upper half of the body and so were treated with upper
parts of plants, while ailments of lower parts of the body were treated
with below-ground plant parts. Yin (primitive female) was
associated with plants having moderate action and those with bitter,
sour, salty, and sweet tastes. Furthermore, yellow and sweet were
associated with the spleen, red and bitter with the heart, green and
sour with the liver, and black and salty with the lungs.
In Western cultures, the use of plants for medical purposes emerged
during the Middle Ages, when people believed that human destiny was
determined by the stars. They believed that plants were placed on
earth for the good of mankind and that God would have provided visual
cues to their use.
This led to the Doctrine of Signatures (a plant’s use was hidden in the
form (signature) of the plant itself). The most famous advocate
of signature plants was Philippus Aureolus von Hohenheim, a Swiss
citizen who later adopted the Latin name Paracelsus. During the
first half of the 16th century, he traveled throughout Europe and to
Asia and Egypt, treating people with his concoctions.
The Doctrine of Signatures was highly popular during the Renaissance,
and many plant names indicate how plants were once used—some of them
highly imaginative. In general, long-lived plants were used
to lengthen a person’s life, and plants with rough stems and leaves
were believed to heal skin diseases. Plants with yellow sap were cures
for jaundice, and roots with jointed appearance were an antidote for
scorpion bites while flowers shaped like a butterfly became cures for
Thus we have plants named liverwort, snakeroot, lungwort, and maidenhair (supposedly a cure for baldness!).
Not too long ago, hepatica was viewed as the cure-all for many ailments
including freckles, indigestion, and cowardice. Although It
is no longer popular as an herbal remedy, it does act as a mild
astringent and diuretic and has limited success as a
laxative. Hepatica reaches a height of 4 inches and
produces lovely flowers. The leaves rise on short stalks and are dark
leathery green, each with three lobes. The flowers may be white, bluish
purple or pink and appear singly on hairy, leafless stems.
In autumn, the leaves turn shades of russet and purple and persist
through winter and the plant continues to use them as a source of
As soon as the ground thaws, one can often find hepatica buds pushing
up through the debris from the crowns of old leaves and several sunny
days will encourage them to open their fragile blossoms. If you don’t
have any in your garden, you should find a spot for these treasures.