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Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton

Small Advances of Spring

Liverleaf may not cure a bad liver, but it will help to ease your winter blues

I would take heroic steps to eliminate about 21 of February’s 28 or 29 days to get to the good stuff. March can be wicked, but I like how late winter blurs into early spring. In early March — along with the showy daffodils and forsythia — tiny native spring beauties bloom, and the budding spice bush makes a green haze in the flood plains.

As the days slowly grow longer and the average temperatures fitfully trend higher, somewhere in Southern Maryland —

Scientific name: Hepatica americana

What to look for: Thick, tri-lobed leaves that look a little like ivy. Leaves can show practically year round. White or purple flowers on a hairy stem in early spring.

What to bring: Peterson Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-Central North America by Margaret McKenny.

Where to look: Old growth woods.

Places to go: American Chestnut Land Trust, Calvert County. Patuxent Wildlife Visitors Center, Laurel.

though I don’t know where — an early spring wildflower is sprouting thick, tri-lobed leaves and unfurling a curiously hairy stem. Six white, pink or purple petals (we’ll call them petals for now) will bloom from that stem sometime this month or early April. The timing depends on the weather. The hairy stem acts like a sweater to protect the upstart when temperatures dip below freezing.

Hepatica americana is a woodland member of the buttercup family. Look closely at a hepatica or common buttercup in bloom, and you’ll see the resemblance in the inflorescence or flowering parts. What look like petals are not actually petals but sepals. Sepals act like a coat that protects emerging flower buds from the weather. The structure is an adaptation beneficial to early spring-blooming plants. Dogwoods have a similar adaptation.

I have looked for Hepatica, but so far this year I haven’t found it. I know it grows in rich soil. I think you might find it in the company of big old trees, where the woods have not been disturbed by logging and other human activities for a long time. Let’s just say that hepatica is out there, somewhere.

The tri-lobed leaves are shaped somewhat like a human liver, giving hepatica its scientific name. Hepatica — as in hepatitis — refers to things associated with the liver. In English, the plant is also called liverleaf. For hundreds of years people believed in the Doctrine of Similars. It specified, for example, that liver-shaped leaves could cure liver disease. In 1883, 450,000 pounds of hepatica leaves were collected from American and European species and used as medicine in the U.S.

Hepatica is rare on the coastal plain, roughly the area east of Route 95. But you can have fun exploring places such as the Patuxent Wildlife Visitors Center in Laurel or the American Chestnut Land Trust in Calvert County. For an almost guaranteed look, visit Fern Valley, the native plant garden at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., this month.

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