The attractive Hepatica nobilis (liverwort) make a terrific groundcover under evergreens. In early spring they send up these beautiful blue flowers, before the new leaves have even unfurled. Then the plants form a low profile of lobed leaves that look fresh until the fall. Mine are growing in shade, with a smidgen of dappled light, and are thriving. If you have a few trees making a mini-forest, I can highly recommend these perennials for that shady location.
Hepatica are available in blue, purple, pink and white, but I’m very partial to this ‘Blue Form’. In this closeup of one of the flowers, you can see the white stamens shooting out like fireworks against the blue petalled background. Each bloom has 6 or 7 slightly overlapping oval sepals that look like petals radiating out around the stamens. This blue form has a true blue flower, similar to Scilla (squills). When you see these perennials early in your garden, the bright colour immediately takes your breath away, as it is so unexpected in the early spring shadows. In my zone 3 garden, they start blooming at the end of April and last for about 3 weeks, around the time that the Crocus vernus flower.
The bright flowers are all the more noticeable, since the fresh leaves sprout afterwards. In the above photo, you can see how the Hepatica nobilis blooms appear to be hovering over the ground, with just a few new leaf buds about to open. The pretty flowers are about 10 to 15 cm tall (4 to 6 in). You can get an idea of their size from the pine cone on the right side of the photo.
Here are the good-looking flowers seen in profile, just as they are opening. This picture emphasizes the delicate look to the sepals, with their light to medium blue colour and dark blue edging from behind. The stems and bracts have small fuzzy hairs, but you have to get down close to really notice them.
I was playing around with someone else’s camera for the above photograph, so it mistakenly has a red cast, giving the Hepatica flowers more of a purplish blue tint than in real life. It does show the simple flower shape, with the 6 to 8 colourful petals and star burst of stamens. If they had a lot more sepals pretending to be petals, they would be worth a lot more, as some of the double flowering Japanese Hepaticas go for hundreds of dollars. I suspect that I wouldn’t be planting those out under the conifers, since I would worry every time a squirrel ran past, or a cone dropped precariously near.
After the petals fade, the three bracts cup the remaining seed head. The seed structure is normally found on the ground, since there is only a thin stem to support it. I’ve propped this seed head up on a leaf, so you can see the seeds, as they don’t look nearly so interesting seen from behind while flat on their face. I suppose if they are prostrate on the ground, it makes it easier for insects to spread them around. These ephemeral seeds are loosely attached, can be harvested right away while green, and don’t store well. I haven’t tried collecting them to germinate in pots, but we’ll see how they do at sprouting in the conifer litter this year.
Here you can see the shady setting for the Hepatica nobilis patch. This garden is on the north side of my house and there is a garage to the east. It is also directly under a pine, and next to a giant spruce. This makes it a very shady location for most of the day, but it does get some dappled sunlight for a bit, filtering through the tree needles. It gets a bit more of the dappled light now, as I had to prune a few branches back, since the pine wasn’t content with just growing in the garden, and wanted to come in through the living room window as well. The picture above shows the sunbeams flickering on the right hand side, and some lucky leaves getting their brief sunbath. Despite the shadowy garden setting, the Hepatica do very well in this site. The plants have been growing slowly over the last few summers, and are filling in more now. Considering the low light and competition for water, I think they’ve done very well at expanding.
This photo shows what the Hepatica have to put up with. Being directly under the evergreens, they get bombarded by pine and spruce cones. These perennials are growing in a thick layer of conifer needles, which they seem to enjoy. Although they grow in the wild under deciduous trees, they appear well adapted to life in a mini conifer forest like this one in my front yard. They are still sending up leaves at the end of May, so the clump will fill in more.
Here is a shot of just one plant. Each perennial is about 20 cm (8 in) across and 10 cm (4 in) high. As they establish in my garden, they are starting to make a nice groundcover. You can see photos of other perennials planted here in these pictures of this garden bed from three years ago. When I first planted these three falls ago, they were just little plugs. In fact, all of the leaves had already died back, and really only had a tiny little nose showing, as I took them out of their shipping package. I planted them on faith that there was something alive in the soil clump that was coated in plastic wrap. Three years later, the Hepatica are starting to touch at their edges and shade the garden floor, but really they don’t have a lot of competition from weeds here, as most other plants aren’t keen on the shady, dry site. I do give them some supplemental water, as the giant conifers are gong to suck up the bulk of any moisture that falls here.
One of the reasons they might do so well, is that their leaves are very thick and waxy, rather like Asarum (wild ginger). This groundcover has an interesting and attractive leaf shape, with the rounded lobes having a small point on them. In the picture above you can see another aspect of their low maintenance, I don’t have to remove the old leaves.
The previous year’s evergreen leaves are still around in spring as the snow melts, but fade away as the nice new leaves come out. I don’t bother removing the decaying ones, as they just decompose into the cone and needle mulch on the soil, and the new foliage quickly obscures them. Last year’s greenery turns dark, and blends into the soil, while the new ones are lighter in colour. In the shot above, you can see the fuzziness of the stems and downy back of the new foliage.
This shot in the rain shows the attractive leaf form, with the three lobes and thick texture. Of course, leaves always look particularly good in the rain, as the drops pool and roll down the sides. Since the Hepatica leaves have good substance, the foliage doesn’t seem to get damaged by the falling tree litter. It just rolls off them, like the rain, and forms a nice mulch all around them. You have to love a self mulching garden.
In the photo above, you can see one of the Tiarella ‘Iron Butterfly’ plants behind. The Tiarella is just starting to get some buds. This clump of Hepatica nobilis is surrounded by a Hosta ‘Francee’ on one side, a Hosta ‘Patriot’ on the other, some Athyrium ‘Ghost’ (ghost ferns), a clump of the groundcover Asarum arifolium (wild ginger), a group of Tiraella ‘Iron Butterfly’ (foamflower), and another group of Tiarella ‘Cascade Creeper’ (foamflower). After the Hepatica blooms are gone, some Brunnera macrophylla (Siberian bugloss) plants on the far side start to bloom in sky blue, and next to the Brunnera, some Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’ (bishop’s cap) flower in a lilac colour. In the picture below, the dried stalks of the Hosta ‘Francee’ can be seen, but you can’t really notice the new Hosta leaves that are just starting to pop up, ever the slow pokes in the spring garden. The Tiarella, on the other hand, get an early start with their foliage, and keep the area from looking too bare until the Hosta and ferns decide that, yes, winter is actually over and it is safe to come up for a look around. You can see some of the other shade loving perennials in this bed, as well as how the Hepatica looked two summers ago.
The Hepatica nobilis make a great natural groundcover, if you have a shady garden site under the trees. The plants don’t mind the low light, will flower with unexpectedly bright blue blooms in spring, and then will make a low maintenance groundcover for the rest of the season. The leaves are somewhat evergreen, even in zone 3, so they give you garden colour up until covered by snow. This is the third season that theses perennials have been growing in my garden, and they just get better looking every year.