Hepatica and Saxifrage

hepatica black and white

The Hepatica: If you cannot find one in your area, please don’t study it from pictures and the information below.  Children should be studying flowers and other plants from nature, in situ.

If you live where it blooms, look for it in woods, in damper spots. If you’re not sure it’s in your area, call your local extension office, a state nature center,  or google hepatica and your state.

Apologies for the difficulty reading this text.  I didn’t have time to transcribe it:

Hepatica story 1899From Moderator Topics, volume 20 (1899)

More: Following closely behind skunk-weed, hepatica blooms so early that the name for it in Japanese means ‘break-snow.’


It’s best to read the following information yourself, and then let your children observe the flower in nature and draw their attention to things like the shape of the leaves, the number and colour of the petals, the downy hair on the stem, and so forth.  As much as possible, let them observe without your hints and prompts first.  Then let them tell you what they have discovered.

You could ask them to describe it to you, or to tell you how it is different from some other flower they know.

hepatica colouring patternBring along paints or coloured pencils and sketchpads and sketch it.  If it is too cold, take a good picture of it and go home or to the car for sketching.

Now you can ask a few other questions about it.

If possible, you should make a note of where you found the plant, and go back to visit it several times a year to observe any changes.

These questions are suggested in the Junior Naturalist Monthly, published by the College of Agriculture, Cornell University., 1899.
They are for use with hepatica plants in the wild which you can visit several times over the course of a year. There were, I believe, printed on a leaflet that the children took with them into the field.

Aee how many of the following questions you can answer
1. Where do hepaticas grow, in sunny or shady places? In which season do they get the most sunlight
2. Watch the first sign of life in the plant. Do the new leaves or the flowers come first?
3. Look at the hepatica blossom a long time. How many different parts can you see in it? Whether you know the names of these parts now does not matter. I want you to see them.
4. Notice the three small green leaf like parts that are around the flower bud. As the flower opens see whether they are a part of it or whether they are a little way from it on the stem.
5. Observe the stem closely. Is it short or long Hairy or smooth?
6. As the new leaves appear, find out whether they are fuzzy on the inside as well as on the outside. Notice how they are rolled up and watch them unroll.
7. In how many different colors do you find hepaticas?
8. Do some smell sweeter than others? If so does color seem to have any thing to do with it?
9. Look at a hepatica plant at night or very late in the afternoon. Also watch it early in the morning and in cloudy weather. Then look at it in bright sunshine. Do you see any change in the flowers? I think you will discover something of much interest.
10. Seed time among hepaticas is very interesting. Notice what becomes of the three small leaf like parts that were underneath the flower. How many seeds are there?
11. How long do you think the leaves of hepatica remain on the plant? Do you suppose they remain green all winter?
12. What becomes of the hepatica plant after it blossoms? Did you ever see one in summer? Describe.
13. Sketch a picture of the hepatica.

From Wild Flowers by Neltje Blanchan:

(Hepalica Hepatica; H. triloba of Gray) Crowfoot family

Flowers – Blue, lavender, purple, pinkish, or white; occasionally, not always, fragrant; 6 to 12 petal-like, colored sepals (not petals, as they appear to be), oval or oblong; numerous stamens, all bearing anthers; pistils numerous 3 small, sessile leaves, forming an involucre directly under flower, simulate a calyx, for which they might be mistaken. Stems: Spreading from the root, 4 to 6 in. high, a solitary flower or leaf borne at end of each furry stem. Leaves: 3-lobed and rounded, leathery, evergreen; sometimes mottled with, or entirely, reddish purple; spreading on ground, rusty at blooming time, the new leaves appearing after the flowers. Fruit: Usually as many as pistils, dry, 1-seeded, oblong, sharply pointed, never opening. Preferred Habitat – Woods; light soil on hillsides. Flowering Season – December-May. Distribution – Canada to Northern Florida, Manitoba to Iowa and Missouri. Most common East.

Even under the snow itself bravely blooms the delicate hepatica, wrapped in fuzzy furs as if to protect its stems and nodding buds from cold. After the plebeian skunk cabbage, that ought scarcely to be reckoned among true flowers – and William Hamilton Gibson claimed even before it – it is the first blossom to appear. Winter sunshine, warming the hillsides and edges of woods, opens its eyes,

       “Blue as the heaven it gates at,
Startling the loiterer in the naked groves
With unexpected beauty; for the time
Of blossoms and green leaves is yet afar.”

“There are many things left for May,” says John Burroughs, “but nothing fairer, if as fair, as the first flower, the hepatica. I find I have never admired this little firstling half enough. When at the maturity of its charms, it is certainly the gem of the woods. What an individuality it has! No two clusters alike; all shades and sizes…. A solitary blue-purple one, fully expanded and rising over the brown leaves or the green moss, its cluster of minute anthers showing like a group of pale stars on its little firmament, is enough to arrest and hold the dullest eye. Then,…there are individual hepaticas, or individual families among them, that are sweet scented. The gift seems as capricious as the gift of genius in families. You cannot tell which the fragrant ones are till you try them. Sometimes it is the large white ones, sometimes the large purple ones, sometimes the small pink ones. The odor is faint and recalls that of the sweet violets. A correspondent, who seems to have carefully observed these fragrant hepaticas, writes me that this gift of odor is constant in the same plant; that the plant which bears sweet-scented flowers this year will bear them next.”

It is not evident that insect aid is necessary to transfer the tiny, hairy spiral ejected from each cell of the antherid, after it has burst from ripeness, to the canal of the flask-shaped organ at whose base the germ-cell is located. Perfect flowers can fertilize themselves. But pollen-feeding flies, and female hive bees which collect it, and the earliest butterflies trifle about the blossoms when the first warm days come. Whether they are rewarded by finding nectar or not is still a mooted question. Possibly the papillae which cover the receptacle secrete nectar, for almost without exception the insect visitors thrust their proboscides down between the spreading filaments as if certain of a sip. None merely feed on the pollen except the flies and the hive bee.

hepatica frame

Click to enlarge and then print. Use for copywork if desired, or sketch the hepatica you find in the center.

hepatica embroidery designThe SHARP-LOBED LIVER-LEAF (Hepatica acuta) differs chiefly from the preceding in having the ends of the lobes of its leaves and the tips of the three leaflets that form its involucre quite sharply pointed. Its range, while perhaps not actually more westerly, appears so, since it is rare in the East, where its cousin is so abundant; and common in the West, where the round-lobed liver-leaf is scarce. It blooms in March and April. Professor Halsted has noted that this species bears staminate flowers on one plant and pistillate flowers on another; whereas the Hepatica Hepatica usually bears flowers of both sexes above the same root. The blossoms, which close at night to keep warm, and open in the morning, remain on the beautiful plant for a long time to accommodate the bees and flies that, in this case, are essential to the perpetuation of the species.

Another contender for first to bloom is the early saxifrage:

early saxifrageEarly Saxifrage  is a tiny-flowered plant that loves dry, sunny, rocky hillsides. It flowers during March and April. The leaves are all basal; spatulate in shape, blunt ended, either rough-edged or toothed, rather coarse in texture, narrowing toward their base into clasping stems. Saxifrage is common from N. B. to Minn., south to Ga. and Tenn.

From the 1924 field guide,

Flower Guide: Wild Flowers East of the Rockies (Revised and with New Illustrations)
by Chester A. Reed

About this one, Blanchan says:
Flowers–White, small, numerous, perfect, spreading into a loose panicle. Calyx 5-lobed; 5 petals; 10 stamens; 1 pistil with 2 styles. Scape: 4 to 12 in. high, naked, sticky-hairy. Leaves: Clustered at the base, rather thick, obovate, toothed, and narrowed into spatulate-margined petioles. Fruit: Widely spread, purplish brown pods.
Preferred Habitat–Rocky woodlands, hillsides.
Flowering Season–March-May.
Distribution–New Brunswick to Georgia, and westward a thousand miles or more.
Rooted in clefts of rock that, therefore, appears to be broken by this vigorous plant, the saxifrage shows rosettes of fresh green leaves in earliest spring, and soon whitens with its blossoms the most forbidding niches. (Saxum = a rock; frango = I break.) At first a small ball of green buds nestles in the leafy tuffet, then pushes upward on a bare scape, opening its tiny, white, five-pointed star flowers as it ascends, until, having reached the allotted height, it scatters them in spreading clusters that last a fortnight.

From: Book of Nature and Outdoor Life, University Society Incorporated, for the After School Club of America, Philadelphia, 1912:

As its name- coming from the Latin words saxum, a stone, and franga, to break- suggests, it is fond of growing in the clefts of rocks. I have found it on the surface of a boulder where there seemed at first no crevice at all, no chance for the little roots to get nourishment. The botanical direction for finding it is “exposed rocks and dry hillsides.” You might hunt along a good many dry hillsides without seeing it, or you might pass it many times without noticing it as it is rather a modest flower, but sooner or later you are sure to come across one looking like a bit of white fringe seen against the rock. The saxifrage seems to show that it is used to scanty fare and to holding its own in hard and dry places. It is a straggling little plant with hairy, rather clumsy branching stems and small, very thick, not easily seen leaves clustered at the root the whole plant, seldom growing more than five or six inches high. The small white flowers, sometimes a grayish white, have five petals and grow in pretty little clusters;  very close at first and spreading out and becoming more feathery as the flowers open.

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