Liverwort/Liverleaf – Anémone hépatique
The flowers of the Liverwort are exquisite. It is one of the first plants of the year to flower. The sepals vary in colour from blue to purple, pink and even white, but most commonly they are a shade of bluish-purple. What makes them so lovely are the numerous stamens that gives the plant its distinctive look.
It is a native to woodlands in the northern hemisphere. It likes acid, neutral to humus-rich soils and as it is a woodland plant, shade. The leaves and sepals emerge directly from the rhizome. The flowering period is quite long, it can be as long as 2 months. The 3-lobed, kidney shaped leaves stay on the plant all year round. The old leaves only die back when the new leaves appear. They are borne on petioles between 10-15 cm long. Linnaeus classified the plant under the name Anemone hepatica and sometimes it is referred to in this way, but more commonly the name Hepatica nobilis is used.
We came across this little plant today when we were out foraging. It was a very cold day for late March in Provence (5 C), and overcast, threatening to rain, but yet the flowers of Liverwort were wide open, carpeting the forest floor with specks of delightful blue.
Liverwort is propagated by its seeds, not by the rhizomes. The plant relies on ants for seed dispersal and has a special appendage to attract the ants. The ants eat the appendages but not the seeds, so these are able to germinate in their new location.
In olden times, Liverwort was a much used medicinal plant. As its common name indicates, it was used for liver complaints. The name Hepatica comes from the word ‘Hepar’ which means liver in Greek. The underside of the leaves have the colour of liver and the 3-lobed leaf reminds one of the shape of the liver. Physicians often based their treatment of ailments on the way a plant looked. In the ancient world, as well as in the Middle Ages, physicians/philosophers like Theophrastus – Greek philosopher (371-287 BC), Dioscorides – Greek Physician (40-90 AD), Celcus – Greek philosopher (c 200 AD), Galen – physician, surgeon and philosopher (c 130 AD-210 AD), Avicenna (980-1037 AD) and Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654 AD), all believed that the shape and colour of the plant had something to do with its medicinal use.
Philippus von Hohenheim (1491-1541), better known as Paracelcus, meaning after Celcus (the Greek philosopher), wrote a book called ‘the Doctrine of Signatures’ (for sale at Amazon) in which he theorized about the medicinal uses of plants according to their shape and colour. Later on in the 16th century Jakob Bohme (1525-1624) put a theological meaning to how a plant looked. According to him, it was created by God in this particular shape, so its shape must indicate for which organ it could be used. Of course, nowadays we have the chemical knowledge to examine the constituents of plants, but at that time they acquired their knowledge by trial and error and, for some, by the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’.
Although Liverwort is not popular today, it is used by some herbalists. It is a mildly astringent, soothing, diuretic herb. It heals wounds and is a tonic. It is used internally to treat bronchial and digestive complaints, and liver and gall bladder disorders and externally, for minor injuries and ringworm. Although Liverwort contains the slightly toxic chemical protoanemonin, when the plant material is dried the protoanemonin becomes the non-toxic anemonin. All parts of the plant can be used.
An infusion of the dried plant material is made by adding 1 teaspoon to 500 ml of boiled water (wait 3 minutes after water has been boiled before adding to herbs). Leave to infuse for 20 minutes , strain.
Bibliography: Siganature Doctrine/Hepatica nobilis – Wikipedia; RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs – Deni Bown; Hepatica nobilis – UBC Botanical Garden & Centre for Plant Research; Liverwort – Culpeper’s Complete Herbal & English Physician.