Hepatica: hidden treasures


The tiny, exquisite hepatica is seldom seen and yet it must be the ideal plant for the city garden, balcony or container in spring. John Massey Victoria Medal of Honour holder and  award-winning specialist from Ashwood Nurseries tells us the secrets of how to make the most of these marvellous, yet little known, treasures.

Why Hepaticas?

Hepaticas are among the most delightful flowers of early spring. On bright sunny days their flowers open wide to display a delicate beauty and unobtrusive charm. They range in colour from soft mauves, to sky blues to acid pinks and whites in single, semi-double or double forms. The colour and form of their stamens also vary so that all sorts of eye-catching combinations are possible. These small clump-forming, almost evergreen herbaceous perennials also have attractive lobed leaves, usually green, but some varieties come with striking variegations or marbling on their upper surface.

Hepaticas in the wild

Hepaticas are members of the Ranunculaceae family and are distributed throughout the northern temperate zone in parts of Asia, North America and Europe. In wild populations they are found growing in leaf litter on deciduous woodland slopes in both acid and alkaline soils.  They are snow-melt plants, so in early spring the soil has plenty of moisture, but drains freely and is never waterlogged and the woodland slopes get plenty of exposure to sunshine at this time. By summer, the plants are covered in dense shade from the tree canopy above and soil conditions are much drier.


Hepatica nobilis

Hepaticas for the garden or container

The European hepaticas (H. nobilis, H. transsilvanica, H.x media and their cultivars) are best for growing in the garden but the American species (H. americana, H. acutiloba and their cultivars) are well worth trying in very sheltered areas.

These hepaticas can also be grown successfully in alpine sinks or pans  on your patio or balcony given the right conditions .Plant in a free-draining compost that is made up of equal parts of John Innes No. 2, bark (or leaf-mould) and perlite.

americana acutiloba

Hepatica americana and Hepatica acutiloba

Keeping Hepaticas happy in the outdoors

Whether you are growing hepaticas in the garden or the alpine house, you should try to replicate the conditions that they experience in the wild.

Tolerant of both acidic and alkaline conditions, hepaticas should be planted on a sunny, well-drained slope in a light ‘fluffy’ fertile soil that is rich in leaf mould with plenty of moisture in spring that rapidly drains away.

They flower much better when they are exposed to early spring sunshine, although they must receive plenty of shade immediately after flowering and especially during the heat of the summer. H. transsilvanica and its forms are more tolerant of dry shade.

All establish best when planted from late winter to spring or in autumn, as long as there is no frost in the ground or drought or waterlogged conditions.

Hepaticas respond well to a top-dressing of leaf-mould in the autumn and an annual feed of blood, fish and bone or calcified seaweed in late winter.

It is good to remove old leaves just before flowering as the new foliage will appear shortly after flowering. If prolonged rainfall in early summer causes leaves to blacken and rot prematurely, any that are badly damaged can be removed and the plant sprayed with a systemic fungicide.

transsilvanica and bibo

Hepatica transsilvanica and Hepatica nobilis ex Bibo

Perfect partners

Hepaticas thrive under deciduous shrubs or small trees whose canopy can be raised. Hamamelis, Cornus officinalis, Cornus mas ‘Variegata’ and Ribes ‘White Icicle’’ are lovely companions and hepaticas are especially charming combined with small spring bulbs such as snowdrops, Cyclamen coum, winter aconites and miniature narcissi.

Hepaticas for the glasshouse

Asian hepaticas (H. japonica, H.asiatica, H. henryi, H. yamatutai, H. insularis, H. maxima, H. falconeri and their cultivars), as well as their inter-species crosses, are best grown in pots in a protected environment  to make sure that they are untouched by the vagaries of the British weather and their exquisite blooms can be viewed at close quarters.

japonica  yamatuti

Hepatica japonica forma magna and Hepatica yamatutai

Keeping Hepaticas happy under glass

Hepaticas are easiest to grow in porous clay pots, as these provide the sharp drainage that is so essential for success, using compost made up of equal parts of John Innes No. 2, bark (or leaf-mould) and perlite. They can be re-potted each year after flowering -usually at the end of March- or in August to September.

To do this, shake off the old compost and trim off any damaged roots. Vigorous roots may be cut back by about one third, to make re-potting easier. Hepaticas will not thrive in compacted compost so don’t pot too firmly, compress the compost very lightly with your fingers. Our own preferred method is to position the crown of the plant high in the pot, and fill to the brim with compost. We then gently tap the pot on the bench to allow both plant and compost to settle. A good watering will then complete the job.

After flowering good housekeeping is very important. The glasshouse needs to be 75% shaded and well-ventilated, still ensuring that late frosts or strong winds don’t damage the new foliage. Plants should be watered often in early spring (in early morning rather than in the heat of the day) and less in summer and autumn although they should not be allowed to dry out completely. Any liquid feeding should be done in spring or autumn. The floor and between the pots can be damped down during warm days to increase humidity.

When they pull out easily, old flower stems should be removed along with old fading flower petals which can cause rotting if they fall into the crown. Plants should be checked for greenfly and sprayed with a systemic fungicide. In January, the shade can be removed in anticipation of bud burst and tired or diseased leaves removed.

Images courtesy of Ashwood Nurseries  www.ashwoodnurseries.com

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