(Spring is still a few weeks away – but here’s a forest plant you will want to look for on your hikes in the coming weeks. By posting this early, it will give you time to look for and see the spring wildflowers of Southern Ontario’s woods.)
Spring is the most incredible time in the deciduous forests of Ontario. Long before the trees get leaves, the forest is coming to life from the ground up. Frogs begin to sing before the ice is fully melted in Altona’s ponds, salamanders become active, and protected by the leaf litter, the earliest of woodland flowers bloom.
Be watchful as you walk – and be especially careful where you step. Many spring wildflowers begin as a simple, small, unremarkable single leaf… that takes a number of springs before it yields a blossom. Stay on-trail to protect future years’ blooms.
Two years ago on a guided Rouge Park hike I saw a flower and I was instantly smitten. It was so lovely – starry little blossoms. It’s hairy stems and curly leaf stems were barely visible. The whole plant is only a few inches tall, but that doesn’t take away from it’s beauty – in fact it makes a trail-walk even more interesting as you look for them.
Last year in mid-April I was wandering Altona Forest’s deciduous forest trails and was so surprised to see a little clump of them! I walked these trails for years and had never seen one. They are not prolific, easily destroyed, and delicate – the small group I saw might be the only one in Altona Forest. Please let me know if you spot them anywhere along the trails.
Hepatica is commonly known as liverwort or liverleaf– and because I dislike it’s common name I’ve been sticking with its formal one. Why such a name? Because the shape and colour of the rounded three-lobed leaves resemble a human liver. These leaves are both delicate and hardy – they overwinter under the snows of winter and their damaged or curled edges are the battle scars of frost-damage. Dry frost is much tougher to endure than protective snows.
If the two photos seem dissimilar and hardly the same plant to you, you are astute. Damp conditions and early mornings have the blossoms facing down and partially-closed. Sunny and dry afternoons will have them looking upwards. Hepatica comes in 3 main blossom-colours with shades in-between and also two main types. Hepatica blossoms can be bluish-purple, pink, or white; a photographic challenge to find and photograph ones of each colour in the wild.
There are two types based on their leaf shape: round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana) and sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba). I can’t tell them apart yet – but see if you can by photographing all you see. They are from the same wide ‘buttercup’ family as the marsh marigold and like it, varieties can be found in the same latitude across continents – North America, Europe and Asia
While I’d love these in the sun-dappled corners of my garden, they are not easy plants to acquire or grow. They don’t do well being divided, take years to mature from seed, and garden centers don’t have them. This is good in one way – it makes them even more lovely and special in their woodland homes. It would be awful and irreparably destructive if unethical garden centers would steal them from nature just to sell them.
And since their seeds are spread by ants (myrmecochery – if you wanted to geek-out with the official term – frankly I have to look up the spelling every time and butcher the pronunciation!) you never know where a little plant will pop up but it won’t be where you put it. This is the same way bloodroot seeds are propagated in spring. (Bloodroot blooms and seeds in tandem with hepatica.)
I’m not going to list too many details on this lovely little woodland native – but I do suggest an excellent blog post I saw last year.