Wednesday, April 10, 2019

First Flowers of Spring (be still, my heart)

White, purple, pink, and every color in between  hepaticas have just popped out of dead leaves, our first wildflower at the Somme preserves. They pose some questions.

How do we restore them, for example?

Records suggest that they were common and widespread in the oak woods. These days, few woods in this area have many - or any. At Somme, for years, I knew of only two individual plants, now both gone. What happened to them? Then, unexpectedly we found a patch of thirty, and we vowed to protect and restore them widely.

A few are open. A few are just coming up through the leaves. Most are still invisible. 
We wondered if it would help the plants if we were to rake off a lot of those smothering last-year's dead leaves.
For example, here. Why this photo? It's the "before." We only suspected that there were live hepatica leaves under this litter because we remembered where they grew. Notice that gray stick on top for reference in the next photo.
These emerald gems are the hepatica leaves. They photosynthesized through spring and summer of 2018 and then settled down for a winter under autumn's fallen leaf blanket. Why do that? Most perennial plants transport what they can from their leaves back to their roots for storage (and energy) over the winter. Pine trees keep their leaves and photosynthesize all winter. But hepatica keeps green leaves where the sun can't get at them. What gives?
Here's a leaf close up. Some are all green, and some have purplish patterns. 

(Trivially, hepatica leaves are shaped like human livers. The name "hepatica" comes from a word for liver, just as "hepatitis" means "disease of the liver." Long ago ignorant herbalists thought that God placed "signatures" in plants so we could figure out what diseases they cure. This leaf was prescribed for liver disease. The herbalists who sold it claimed it worked. It didn't.)

Hepatica are delicate plants. They grow slowly. We have broadcast seed around now for a few years and as yet seen no results. We have hoped, but not expected. Tom Vanderpoel said that in his experience, "hepatica do come from seed – but few – and slowly." Rob Sulski has raised some in pots for us. After a year, they're so small. It takes time.
Whatever their secrets and science, we love them. Our first flowers of spring. So sweet and good. Bless.

A "more technically interesting and detailed" version of this post is at Strategies For Stewards.

All photos above were taken with a handy cell phone in the last fine week of long-awaited spring. 

Thanks to Kathy Garness for proofing and edits. 


smurph said...

They have complex dormancy so expect 7 to 12 years from seed. The ones in relatively undisturbed areas can be 100 plus years old. In Sweden, related varieties are 500 plus years old. In your area, a few early bees and flies might pollinate them but it is mostly Asclera ruficollis, a beetle. The colour morphs are mostly from genetic drift as beetles don’t see IR or UV or other spectra in a way that attracts them. They will use the flowers as mating arenas. They get fed as part of the vernal dam.

Stephen Packard said...

SMurph, thanks for the interesting comments.

I'm not convinced that complex dormancy is the problem. Expert volunteer propagator Rob Sulski has been raising them for us. All he does is put fresh seed into soil, and they come up next spring. On the other hand, as with many conservative species, they mature very slowly.

Could you give us references for the impressive 100/year and 500/year figures?

Looked up the interesting "vernal dam" hypothesis. Interesting. Wonder if there may be studied implications for conservation management.