Hepatica: how to plant, grow and care for hepatica
Hepaticas brighten shady corners with their delicate, pastel-coloured flowers in spring. We give tips on how to grow them and recommend the best cultivars to grow. Words by horticultural writer Naomi Slade, photographs Jason Ingram.
Dainty, charming and ever so slightly recalcitrant, hepaticas are among the loveliest flowers of spring. Part of the vast buttercup family, Rancunculaceae, Hepatica is made up of around 12 species. The plants are compact and perennial with diverse flowers and intriguingly patterned leaves, yet in British gardens, they remain something of a specialist subject.
In part, this is down to the fact that hepaticas are a challenge to produce in bulk for commercial distribution – the seeds need to be sown immediately when ripe and exposed to frost the following winter to germinate. As a result, they are only available from enthusiasts and specialist growers, such as Ashwood Nurseries, owned by hepatica expert John Massey. However the various species interbreed willingly, so once a collection is established, it can be easily expanded.
What: Small, clump-forming perennials in the buttercup family, characterised by their lobed leaves. Usually evergreen but occasionally deciduous.
Season: Flower from March to May, earlier if grown in a cold greenhouse.
Size: 4-40cm tall.
Growing requirements: Light soil and good drainage are essential, with sunshine and moisture in spring and shade in summer.
It can be a challenge to find the right growing conditions for hepaticas. They grow best in open, fertile, moist soil under trees and shrubs. In the wild, they are often found growing near rivers and streams.
The most reliable hepaticas for UK gardens are the two species of European origin, Hepatica nobilis and H. transsilvanica, and their hybrid H. x media. The majority of hepaticas are found growing in Asia. These include H. maxima, the largest of all the hepaticas and an important breeding parent, which is hardy in the UK if given the right conditions.
The real horticultural epicentre of hepaticas is Japan. With numerous varieties across the region, they have been collected in Japan since 1603 and have achieved almost cult status there. There, they are called yukiwariso, or snow-breaking plants. Japanese cultivars are both more tender and more expensive.
How to grow hepatica
Where to grow hepatica
Outside, hepaticas like plenty of water and light in spring, thriving on banks under deciduous shrubs and trees, where they can enjoy both early sunshine and good drainage. They dislike overcrowding and competition, but combine well with hellebores, Cyclamen coum, scilla and miniature daffodils. Japanese hepaticas are best grown under glass in the UK.
Hepaticas can also be grown in an alpine house or well ventilated, unheated greenhouse, kept above -3°C. Grow in free-draining, humus-rich compost in clay pots. Water sparingly when not in active growth and pot up annually.
How to plant hepatica
Hepaticas hate compacted soil, so add plenty of organic matter before planting and loosen soil after working nearby.
How to care for hepatica
Watch out for greenfly and vine weevil, especially if growing in containers or under glass. Cut off diseased or tired looking leaves and remove old foliage as buds swell. Pinch out fading petals and old stems to avoid mildew getting into the centre of the plant. Apply a liquid feed in spring or autumn.
How to propagate hepaticas
In September, you can divide hepaticas gently into individual crowns, with roots attached, then pot up into humus-rich, free-draining compost. Water well. Try not to compress the compost.
Alternatively, harvest the seed when it ripens, around 60 days after flowering and preferably when still green. Sow immediately on the surface of pots of compost. Cover with 1cm of horticultural grit, water well and leave outside in a shady spot. Keep moist.
More like this
The best hepatica to grow
Hepatica nobilis var. japonica
The leaves of this variety form pointed lobes. While usually ivory-white in colour, pinks and reds are sometimes round; this yellow is a rarity. 5-8cm.
Hepatica americana Eco Group
Prevalent in northern areas of North America, H americana flowers between March and June in the wild. Eco Group comprises seedlings from Don Jacobs' selections and have marbled leaves with white or pastel-coloured flowers. 10-15cm.
Hepatica 'Hazelwood Froggie'
This accidental hybrid was discovered by National Collection Holder Glenn Shapiro. With masses of upward-facing blue flowers and handsome foliage, it is vigorous and free flowering. 15cm.
Hepatica nobilis blue bicolour group
Hardy in the British climate, as are all H. nobilis cultivars. These small but striking blue and white flowers are produced in February and March, standing proud of the variable, marbled leaves. 9-15cm.
Hepatica nobilis var. japonica 'Toho'
While not hardy outside, this is a very good plant for greenhouse growing. The densely double, mauve-blue flowers are carried in neat rosettes over glossy, lightly marbled foliage. 15-20cm.
One of two species of hepatica found growing in North America. H. acutiloba has evergreen leaves with sharp lobes and hairy stems. The white or pastel flowers can be wonderfully fragrant. RHS H6.
Hepatica nobilis 'Stained Glass'
Pretty, light blue flowers play second fiddle to foliage in this form. Described by Ashwood Nurseries as the best marble-leaved cultivar they have ever seen. It comes true from seed. 9-15cm.
Hepatica x schlyteri
A hybrid of H. maxima and H. nobilis and combining the best qualities of its parents. This seed-raised plant has large evergreen leaves and attractive flowers in shades of pink or deep blue. 20-30cm.
Hepatica transsilvanica x H. henryi
One of John Massey's seedlings, and one that he sells as H yamatutai x H. transsilvanica. The large, beautifully formed flowers are carried over a carpet of vigorous foliage. Hardy in the garden. 10-15cm.
Hepatica nobilis var. japonica f. magna
Popular in Japan, this is the most exciting form of hepatica. Its relatively large and highly variable flowers may be single or double and its petals, stamens and pistils come in a huge array of colours. 15-20cm.
One of the smallest hepaticas, this hails from the southern part of Korea. The flowers and delicately hairy, sometimes marbled leaves appear at about the same time. Deciduous. 4-7cm.
Hepatica nobilis var. japonica f. magna hybrid
A dainty seedling of this highly diverse group, it has delicate green and white petals with cerise anthers providing a shocking contrast. Sometimes listed as H. japonica var. nipponica f. magna. 15-20cm.
Hepatica nobilis f. pubescens
This wild origin Japanese variant has simple white flowers with dark pistils at the centre. The lobed foliage is splashed with light green and densely covered with fine hairs. John Massey lists it as H. japonica var. pubescens. 8-10cm.
Where to see and buy Heptatica
Ashwood Lower Lane, Kingswinford, West Midlands DY6 0AE. Tel 01384 401996 ashwoodnurseries.com
Coldingham, Eyemouth, Berwickshire TD14 5TZ. Tel 01890 771386 edromnurseries.co.uk
Hazelwood Farm (National Collection Holder)
Hollins Lane, Silverdale, Carnforth, Lancashire LA5 0UB hazelwoodfarm.co.uk