Hepatica: American Anemone for Native Plant Gardens

Buttercup Family Member Also Known as "Liverleaf"

Hepatica plant with pink flowers.
Hepatica has pink flowers and dark leaves. David Beaulieu


So Is It "Hepatica" or "Anemone?"

Let's begin at the beginning. What the heck do you call this plant? Botanists have disagreed over the designation for a long time. The rest of us wish they'd just make up their minds and have done with it to eliminate confusion. Botanists have vacillated between such botanical names for the plant as:

  • Hepatica americana
  • Anemone americana
  • Hepatica nobilis

I'll reference the plant in the information below using both "anemone" and "Hepatica" to inure you to the fact that you may encounter both names if conducting further research.

 The prevailing tendency seems to be to acknowledge three separate, but closely related genera, belonging to the buttercup family (see below), all of which have been called "anemones" in the past:

Besides functioning as a genus name, "Hepatica" is also sometimes used as part of the common name. The wildflower guidebook that I use the most refers to the plant as "round-lobed Hepatica" (to distinguish it from a similar plant called "sharp-lobed Hepatica"). 

What Type of Plant Is Hepatica?

perennial native to eastern North America, this "anemone" has evergreen leaves: i.e., some of the foliage survives the winter, sporting a burgundy color. But brown leaves will be present as well by the time the hairy flower stalks push up again in spring, detracting from what would otherwise be attractive basal foliage.

Thereafter the new, waxy, green leaves will appear. I remove some of the brown leaves now and then to improve the plant's overall appearance.

As spring turns into summer, some of these green leaves may take on burgundy mottling, on the way to becoming totally burgundy.

Plant Description

A mature Hepatica plant growing under the right conditions can put on a magnificent floral display, as demonstrated by the image above. The flowers are small (1 inch across), but numerous (on mature plants).

 White, lavender, and pink are all fairly common colors for the flowers in my region; more rarely, one encounters bluish-lavender blooms. Mine bloom in April here in growing zone 5. The first flowers to bloom, upon fading, will be replaced by a fresh crop of flowers; for a couple of weeks in spring, you can count on having a sufficient number of blooms to draw attention. 

The leaves (see above) are trilobed, but simple. For identification purposes, don't confuse them with the tripartite, compound leaves of a plant such as the frequent neighbor of Hepatica, jack-in-the-pulpit. If you look closely, you'll see that the latter has three distinct leaflets borne on stalks. By contrast, the three lobes of Hepatica join at the center of the leaf, without any intervening leaf stalks.

Plants reach a height of about 6 inches; at maturity they can spread to about 9 inches. This anemone does reseed, so anticipate spreading via volunteers.

Growing Conditions for Hepatica

Grow this anemone in planting zones 3-9. It prefers a site with humusy soil that drains well. It is listed for partial shade, although mine has flourished on the north side of my house, in a spot that receives hardly any direct sunshine.

Family Ties, Types of Anemones

Hepatica plants belong to the enormous and diverse buttercup (Ranunculus) family, which also includes such landscape plants as:

Their closest relatives are the Hepaticas native to Europe and Asia.  

In the woods of my native New England (U.S.) I also find something called a "wood anemone" (Anemone quinquefolia). The latter is easily identified as a totally different plant from Hepatica by its deeply indented leaves. Incidentally, the plant known in Britain as "wood anemone" is A. nemorosa. For more on anemones, see below under "Origins of the Name."

Liverleaf and the Doctrine of Signatures

I have used "Hepatica" here as a common name for the plant, but you may also come across a more folksy common name: "liverleaf." The latter alludes to the appearance of the leaves (indeed, Hepatica is Latin for "pertaining to the liver").

Based on the alleged resemblance these leaves bear to the liver, Hepatica, traditionally, was used in medicine to address liver problems. This is an example of the application of the Doctrine of Signatures, which essentially states that if a plant part resembles a body organ, it will be efficacious in treating the ailments to which said organ is subject.

Origins of the Name, "Anemone," Mythical Explanation

"Anemone" comes from the Greek for "wind" and gives us the common name "windflower." As you know, the Greeks loved their myths, and there is, in fact, a myth behind the anemone. In Ovid's Metamorphoses (X, 737-9), Venus is said to have created the anemone from the blood of her dead lover, Adonis. Ovid even supplies us with the origin of the name (for which I'm grateful, because otherwise I wouldn't see the connection between wind and the flower, anemone); here's the Latin from the passage in question:       

  ...; brevis est tamen usus in illo;
namque male haerentem et nimia levitate caducum
excutiunt idem, qui praestant nomina, venti.

And here's my own very rough translation (just to give you the gist of what's going on):

"But you can enjoy it [i.e., the anemone flower] only briefly. It's so delicate and unstable that a good wind will shake the petals loose. Which is why we call it 'windflower'." [Translation by David Beaulieu]

Don't let the myth confuse you about the plant in question, though. Even though it is Adonis who is transformed in the myth, the flower he becomes (a red anemone) is not the perennial plant named "Adonis." Note also that there are many kinds of anemone; the type referenced in the Greek myth, according to the Plant Encyclopedia, may have been Anemone coronaria.

This is hardly the only case where a Greek myth includes a plant we think we know, but it turns out to be a different plant. The same is true of, for example, Daphne shrubs.

Uses for Hepatica in Landscaping

Hepatica flowers are well suited to woodland gardens, due to their shade tolerance. By extension, they work well in shade gardens in general.

Mature plants are showy enough when in bloom to merit specimen-plant status during the springtime for a small area. 

I would especially urge native plant gardeners living in eastern North America to seek out this "American anemone" at nurseries that specialize in natives. Hepatica may well be the native plant that I have found the most satisfaction in growing. It puts on a reliable April show annually and hasn't been fussy at all for me about care or location.

Although indigenous plants, broadly speaking, require less care than exotic plants to look their best (after all, they're well adapted to their regions, having survived there on their own for centuries), some of my other native plants have petered out over time or underperformed. Maybe such failures can be ascribed to poor location on my part. My Hepatica, however, seems undeterred by my inept ministrations and determined to dazzle me every April.

For related information, please see my pictures of native plants of New England. Or return to my article on native perennial shade gardens.