Hepaticas are astonishing plants. They emerge early in the year, their small saucers of flowers held on wiry stems just above the ground, in time to provide plenty of pollen and nectar for the earliest bees.
The Japanese admire them so much that they seek them out as they emerge through the snow on remote mountainsides, small and perfectly formed jewel-like flowers that come mainly in white, cobalt blue and vivid pink. They call them yukiwariso or the breaking snow plant – and they are also known as the flower of happiness, because they give such pleasure.
Sadly, Japanese species (easily distinguished by japonica in their Latin name) need a sophisticated alpine house to survive in the UK and are not for beginners. Luckily, though, there are plenty of hardy hepaticas that will grow happily in our gardens.
Growing from seed
Collect seeds in summer when ripe and sow straight away using seed sowing compost.
Most seedlings germinate in the following spring and they can be pricked out in the autumn into individual pots.
Where to plant
Good winter drainage is essential: hepaticas are not plants for heavy ground. However, they do need moisture-retentive conditions during their growing season in order to produce fat buds for the following year.
Find them a semi-shaded position under a deciduous tree or a shrub. When planting add well-rotted compost or, ideally, leaf mould to the hole, to retain moisture in summer.
You can also plant hepaticas in clay pots with equal amounts of John Innes no 2, perlite and leaf mould.
How to plant
Always water newly planted hepaticas during their first spring and summer.
Don’t hem them in or move them unless you have to.
When to divide
Divide after flowering or in autumn – but only if necessary. Each division needs to be potted up for six months so that it’s well-rooted before being replanted into the garden.
Growing hepaticas in pots
Many gardeners prefer to grow hepaticas in pots in an alpine house because their foliage is protected from wintry weather.
Repot or divide every year, just after flowering. Shake off the old compost and trim any long roots by a third. Tease larger plants apart at this stage.
Place the crowns on the soil surface. Keep the compost mixture airy and light and firm gently.
Water well and keep the plants well-watered in spring and then ease off the watering. Do not allow the pots to dry out completely – morning watering is best.
Shade your greenhouse immediately after flowering so that three quarters is covered. Remove in October.
Give them a dressing of blood, fish and bone every autumn.
Hepatica nobilis is diminutive and short, so place it where it can be seen, at the front of a woodland garden or under deciduous shrubs. Use it with wood anemones, hellebores, snowdrops and ferns in areas where leafy shade occurs in summer.
The most commonly grown garden forms are derived from H. nobilis a very hardy hepatica found in deciduous woodland throughout Europe, the Balkans, southern Scandinavia and Russia. It even occurs inside the Arctic circle, so this species is very hardy. The six-petalled flowers come in blue, white or pink and the single-flowered forms often seed around in woodland gardens.
Specialists also offer a wide range of hepaticas from other parts of the world. There are twelve species and all grow on woodland slopes where leaf mould gathers. They include some excellent garden plants.
The most common hepatica in the wild and the easiest to grow in the garden, with flowers that come in pure white, cobalt blue and vivid pink. The handsome three-lobed foliage, which is sometimes marbled, rarely gets untidy. Usually March flowering (9-15cm).
From central Romania, this larger-flowered hepatica tolerates drier conditions and more shade. Often in flower in February, with blooms consisting of nine or so rounded blue petals with a green middle. It spreads by rhizomes, but not aggressively so. The scalloped leaves are not as pristine as those of H. nobilis (15cm).
Hepatica transsilvanica 'Elison Spence'
An anemone-centred double deep-blue.
Hepatica transsilvanica 'Loddon Blue'
A pale-blue form raised at Thomas Carlisle’s Loddon Nurseries at Twyford in Buckinghamshire over 50 years ago.
Hepatica x media 'Ballardii' (1917)
A large-flowered sky-blue hybrid bred by Ernest Ballard the husband of hellebore breeder Helen Ballard. Slow to bulk up.
Hepatica x media 'Harvington Beauty' (named in 1995)
This much stronger, blue-flowered hybrid was named 'Harvington Beauty' after the Worcestershire village where it was found growing, often in dry conditions. Although no one knows for certain where it came from, Helen Ballard’s daughter once lived in this village so it might be another Ballard hybrid.
Hepatica x media
Hybrids between H. nobilis and H. transsilvanica have larger flowers and neater, glossy green foliage. ‘Millstream Merlin’, a gentian-blue single bred in America, lilac-blue ‘Buis’ and deep-blue ‘Harvington Beauty’ are all excellent (15cm).
One of the best garden forms is a large, evergreen hepatica from Korea with green-eyed, ivory-white flowers and hairy jade-green foliage. It flowers in February and will grow under deciduous shrubs. The large leaves are thickly textured with fine hairs round the edge so it’s a handsome foliage plant. Although Ashwood Nurseries recommend a greenhouse for overwintering mine has survived three extreme winters in my high, cold garden. It produces large glossy black and white seeds, affectionately known as ‘panda’ seeds (10-12cm).
Hepatica x schlyteri Ashwood Hybrids
Vivid flowers in various colours, held above a collar of three softly hairy green leaves (15-30cm).
The Japanese have their own species (H. japonica) and sharp-eyed collectors have found many different forms, colours and variations over four centuries or more of collecting. The Niigata Prefecture of Honshu, famous for its skiing, has a diverse range of hepaticas growing on the wooded mountain slopes. Doubles and anemone- centred forms have been found and named. This prefecture holds hepatica shows, but these shows are also popular in Tokyo too. The highly-prized plants are grown in glazed containers and almost worshipped by their owners who call them ‘Yukiwariso’ - the breaking snow plant.
In recent years, John Massey of Ashwood Nurseries has introduced some forms via Japan. Some are acid-loving plants, but others grow on sandstone. They are slow to multiply and therefore very expensive to buy, so these are collector’s plants rather than garden stalwarts. Some cost over a hundred pounds, so they have been slow to catch on here so far.
Hepaticas or wood anemones?
Hepeticas are so similar in look to anemones to look at that they were once called Anemone hepatica, until botanists finally segregated them. Both enjoy cool conditions, friable soil and dappled shade, and both flower early in the year. However hepaticas usually precede wood anemones by three to four weeks or more. As a result, their three- or five-lobed leaves can suffer weather damage so it’s often better to cut the foliage away in midwinter and allow the simply shaped flowers to shine on their own.
Find out how to grow Japanese anemones.
Breeding and hybridization
John Massey of Ashwood Nurseries is Britain’s leading hepatica enthusiast and he's travelled the world looking at species in the wild. Over the years he’s amassed the best collection in the country and begun to breed some excellent colour strains and new hybrids, available from his nursery.
Though Japanese varieties are a particular passion for him, he also has a large selection of hardy hepaticas. Hepatica nobilis is the most widespread of ten species found in Asia, North America and Canada, and Europe – although it is not native to Britain. In the wild it is often found growing underneath deciduous trees such as hornbeam, beech, aspen and hazel, nudging through the leaf litter. In colder parts of the world it clings to mountainous slopes clothed with pine and Norway spruce, proving how hardy it is. It’s also found in high alpine regions of Spain, Corsica and Italy.
Hepatica nobilis has been successfully grown in Britain since 1764, and perhaps even earlier. It was widely planted in physic and monastery gardens because it was thought to cure liver disease. The idea that a plant that resembled a part of the body could be used medicinally to treat it was a widely held belief that became formalised in the 17th-century as the Doctrine of Signatures. In the case of hepaticas this may be because the foliage ages to liver brown. (Hence also the generic Latin name, which comes from hepaticus, of the liver.)
John Massey has developed some fine varieties of Hepatica nobilis in lavender, blue, pink and white – the blues are usually the strongest growers. The plants are inexpensive and easy to grow in shade that is not too dense, and make good starting points for beginners. Plant them with miniature bulbs, hellebores and ferns. Or plant the blue forms to flatter sultry, dark hellebores – an electrifying combination.
Our other European species, Hepatica transsilvanica, is found on the steep wooded banks of Transylvania in central Romania and on the Carpathian Mountains. This larger hepatica prefers drier conditions and will grow in deep-ish shade.
These two European species almost certainly hybridise naturally because hepaticas are bee-friendly plants that set seed easily. Ernest Ballard, husband of the great hellebore breeder Helen, raised several hybrids in the early 20th century under the name of H. x media. This is can be a larger plant than H. nobilis but the foliage isn’t as pristine. Once the light-green button-like buds appear on the soil surface, it’s best to cut off the old foliage to expose the starry flowers and slender stems. ‘Ballardiae’ is a sky-blue form that’s hard to find now.
The Harvington hybrids come from the village of that name in Worcestershire. Plant breeder Hugh Nunn moved there in 1985 and spotted a fine colony of mid-blue hepaticas spread out under an old apple tree in a garden. He potted some up and named them H. x media ‘Harvington Beauty’. It’s one of my favourites and does very well in my woodland Gloucestershire garden.
Hybrid hepaticas do not come true to seed so they have to be divided if more plants are needed. Constant division over the years has weakened nursery stock of ‘Harvington Beauty’ and ‘Ballardiae’, but it’s hoped that micropropagation techniques can eradicate any disease and produce good stock plants once again.
In the past 30 or so years, a Korean hepatica, H. maxima, has been introduced with white flowers held above three hairy green leaves in an almost trillium-like arrangement. I have found this hardy and willing to flower in shady conditions where it looks super cool. It’s been hybridised with H. nobilis to produce colourful flowers framed by a ruff of three hirsute leaves; look for them as varieties of H. x schlyteri. They are hardy and persistent in my garden.