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 human organs.

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 insect bites.
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 nourishment. 

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.