Northern Shade Gardening

Hepatica Nobilis with Blue Flowers for a Shady Site

Sunday, May 27, 2012 Category: Perennials
Hepatica nobilis blue flower with stamens

Hepatica nobilis blue flower with stamens

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 nobilis blue flower closeup

Hepatica nobilis blue flower closeup

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.

Hepatica nobilis blue flowers under pine

Hepatica nobilis blue flowers under pine

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.

Hepatica nobilis blue flower in profile

Hepatica nobilis blue flower in profile

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.

Hepatica nobilis blue flowers in May

Hepatica nobilis blue flowers in May

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.

Hepatica nobilis seed head

Hepatica nobilis seed head

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.

Hepatica nobilis in dappled light

Hepatica nobilis in dappled light

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.

Hepatica nobilis perennials

Hepatica nobilis perennials

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.

Hepatica nobilis

Hepatica nobilis

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.

Hepatica nobilis leaf closeup

Hepatica nobilis leaf closeup

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.

Hepatica nobilis new leaf unfurling

Hepatica nobilis new leaf unfurling

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.

Hepatica nobilis leaf in rain

Hepatica nobilis leaf in rain

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.

Hepatica nobilis and Tiarella iron butterfly

Hepatica nobilis and Tiarella iron butterfly

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.

Hepatica nobilis under conifers

Hepatica nobilis under conifers

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.

Hepatica nobilis blue form flower cluster

Hepatica nobilis blue form flower cluster



21 Responses to “Hepatica Nobilis with Blue Flowers for a Shady Site” »

  1. Alana in Canada :
    May 27, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    Those are very pretty.

  2. Northern Shade :
    May 28, 2012 at 7:59 am

    Alana, I can see the flowers out my living room window when they bloom, and although they are small, the bright colour shows well in the shadows.

    Marit, it is odd that they are not more commonly grown in gardens over here. I don’t even see them commonly available in greenhouses around here, and had to order them in. These have been very easy to grow, and are a treat in early spring when so few perennials are blooming.

  3. Marit :
    May 28, 2012 at 1:14 am

    Hepatica nobilis is a common plant here, but I just love them. They are so cute, and their blue colour is so nice. I have them in white, pink, double form and with frecles. In my blog you can see many of them. I enjoy your blog, so I will read it this year too.

  4. Rebecca @ In The Garden :
    May 28, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    How nice to see a new post from you Northern :). What a pretty shade of blue! Your shady woodland groundcovers are so pretty and natural. It’s amazing how much work and planning goes into making something look like no work was done at all!! :)

  5. Northern Shade :
    May 28, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Rebecca, the flowers actually caught me by surprise when they first bloomed this year. I was keeping my eye on the early bulbs in the back garden, and wasn’t really checking the front garden yet. I just happened to catch sight of these under the trees in the front garden as I was going around the corner, and they made me smile. I’ve been aiming for something halfway between a garden and a woodland floor here, and have been pleased with the way it’s developing. However, some plants have been filling in very slowly, probably because of the deeper shade and moisture competition.

  6. shady gardener :
    May 29, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Northern, the Hepatica are so dainty looking. I’m sure they’re beautiful. You seem to be in early Spring… while we’ve been into Summer since April! (odd year, this!) ;-) But enjoyable at the same time.

  7. Northern Shade :
    May 30, 2012 at 7:33 am

    Shady Gardener, we still have spring flowers in bloom here. My tulips and Muscari are in full flower, as well as the spring perennials. The Hepatica have finished flowering now, but the Hosta are still just coming up, and not in full leaf. The Hepatica are very dainty looking, but are much hardier then they look, like many of the small early bulbs.

  8. Waltraud :
    May 31, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Hello ..

    nice to read from you again ..
    Hepatic are I find very beautiful, a delicate flower ..!
    Thank you for your visit with me..!


  9. Northern Shade :
    May 31, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Waltraud, I would think that these should be more popular in gardens, since they are so pretty, and many gardeners have a shady spot to plant.

  10. Randall :
    May 31, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    beautiful – will have to try them. so glad to see you’re back up online here northernshade … as a fellow Edmontonian, I’ve been following your blog for a year now and always look forward to shade garden ideas from you.

  11. Northern Shade :
    May 31, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Randall, the Hepatica are terrific flowers, especially if you are looking for a natural looking or informal garden bed. It’s always great to find more perennials that do well in Edmonton, despite the winters.

  12. Kim :
    May 31, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    Wonderful to see Hepatica happy in your garden. I’m jealous! I’ve tried to winter these over in an alpine trough, but with no success. Our local speciality nursery, Rundle Wood has a great collection of these in their back yard – different colors and single and double flowers, so every spring when I see the collection in bloom I’m so tempted to try again. And seeing yours in bloom…maybe I will try again. Great pics.

  13. Northern Shade :
    May 31, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Kim, it’s unfortunate that they didn’t work in the troughs for you, since you manage to overwinter a number of beauties on your balcony. I will have to check out Rundle Wood next time I am in Calgary.

  14. Dave :
    June 1, 2012 at 9:49 am

    Hi Northern Shade,

    Great to see you are back posting. Last year I thought my Hepatica nobilis might be in decline, but they did fine this spring, even after the patchy snow cover, spruce cone bombing, and red squirrel digging. There are several patches of small leaves on the periphery of the main plant, so it looks like it may be spreading. This is one of my favourite spring flowers, so I hope it is slowly taking over.

  15. Northern Shade :
    June 1, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Dave, thanks for originally suggesting this perennial for the site. I was pleased with the spread of the Hepatica over the last couple of years, and especially this year. When the blue flowers took me by surprise this spring, since I had forgotten to check this area daily like I do for the early bulbs, I was so glad to see them.

  16. debsgarden :
    June 3, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    It’s good to see you in the blogosphere again! I planted hepatica in fall, 2010 for the first time. I love it! Mine down here in the Deep South bloomed back in Jan/Feb, but the lovely leaves still look great. They are planted right beside a path in my woodland garden, and I am waiting for my three plants to spread.

  17. Northern Shade :
    June 3, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    Debsgarden, I planted mine in 2009, and now this year they seem to be spreading much better. We have a shorter growing season than you do, so I think your Hepatica will probably take off soon. It’s a great idea to have them next to a path, where you can view the flowers better.

  18. Barbara :
    June 13, 2012 at 11:22 am

    I felt in love with hepaticas some years ago when I got one. I only have this tiny plant which a friend of mine gave me. She digged it out in the near forest where she lives. Your pictures are great, showing this wonderful blue and the stunning beauty of the plant.

  19. Northern Shade :
    June 13, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Barbara, I about 5 plants in the group, and I’m hoping that mine will spread more and fill in. They have grown quite a bit in the last 3 years, so they seem to like the site in the garden.

  20. Derek Yarnell :
    January 2, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    Very interesting, I am going to add these to my list for ‘under the big spruce’.

  21. Northern Shade :
    January 2, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    Derek, they are very appealing flowers, and it’s really delightful to spy them under the evergreen boughs so early in the season.

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