Blue liverwort, white and yellow wood anemones
Guna Rukšāne, Jaunrūjas Farm in Raiskums parish
In colloquial Latvian, all the flowers mentioned in the title are simply called vizbulītes. The relevant colour is then just added on to the name – this way you know which vizbulītes a child wants to go pick. The only real spanking I ever got from my father was actually related to these flowers: “But I want to go pick vizbulītes, I want to go to the vizbulītes, the vizbulītes…” My stubbornness didn’t help, and I wasn’t allowed to go pick the flowers – my father was probably afraid to let his daughter go to the very remote Vaidava coast where they grew alone.
Liverworts got their name, hepatica (from the Greek hêpar – liver), from the shape of the three-lobed leaf, which resembles a human liver. They have long been used to treat liver, kidney and gallbladder diseases. In his second edition of Dieva dārza ārstniecības augi (Medicinal Plants of God’s Garden, 2014), doctor Artūrs Tereško warns against using fresh liverwort leaves and flowers, as they are poisonous when not dried. However, once dried and if properly used liverwort is a great medicinal plant.
The flowers of European liverwort varieties tend to be different shades of blue in colour. Blooming at the end of March and the beginning of April, when the trees are still bare, they bring the forest to life, opening up on sunny days like small clouds. At the foot of trees in North American forests, on the other hand, pink, lavender or white liverwort flowers (Hepatica acutiloba) are more common. The largest diversity in shades and shapes was discovered in Japan in the second half of the last century. The variety of forms that can be found in the wild is probably one of the reasons why it is in Japan and not in Western Europe or America that there is such a passion for liverwort cultivation. However, cultivating the exquisitely beautiful Japanese varieties could be problematic in Latvia. In Europe, they are grown in so-called alpine houses, which are actually small unheated greenhouses with a rock garden. Japanese liverwort varieties aren’t as hardy as ours and can withstand no more than -10°C degrees in the winter. Juris Egle has, however, been growing Japanese liverwort in Latvia for five years already – they feel good under apple trees and only need to be covered with dry leaves when there is heavy frost. He uses a small roof to protect against excessive moisture in the summer.
Liverwort has a reputation for being difficult to grow among flower enthusiasts, but this is not true. Liverwort cannot be easily and quickly propagated, and grows slowly, but the Latvian blue liverwort and its variations do not cause any specific problems in terms of cultivation as long as they are planted in the shade of deciduous trees in humus-rich, well-drained soil. The Transylvanian liverwort (Hepatica transsylvanica) is a slightly bigger and feels good in the Latvian climate. The round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana) could probably grow quite well here too.
In several European countries it is forbidden to dig up liverwort in the wild, but we still have a lot of them in Latvia, so I urge anyone who is interested to become a breeder to go out into a forest to look for the most interesting colours and forms. Juris Egle, whom I previously mentioned, has already found many interesting forms of blue liverwort in the vicinity of Grobiņa – ‘Agra’ (light purple blossoms, almost white), ‘Maigums’ (distinctly two-toned), ‘Elkukalns’ (semi-double flowered, 16 petals), ‘Grobiņas Baltā’ (pure white), ‘Mežrozīte’ (a soft pink colour with broad petals), ‘Kapsēde’, ‘Lieliskā’, ‘Raiba’ and others.
I also know several people here in Straupe and Raiskums, whose gardens are adorned with white, pink and purple liverwort. I found a number of amazing red and pink liverwort flowers last spring that I carefully dug up with the soil and planted them at one end of my garden under the hazelnut trees. Unfortunately, vegetative propagation takes about five years, and it will only be possible to see whether the found forms are stable and reproduce well after a few years. Now I’m hooked and will go wandering on the shores of the river Brasla again soon.
‘Rubra Plena’ with its red flowers is a double flowered form of liverwort that is also grown in gardens. While still expensive it’s almost for free compared to Japanese varieties of hepatica, which can cost up to €1,000!
Botanists have left white and yellow wood anemones under the Anemone classification (liverwort, or hepatica also used to belong there). They grow in wet deciduous forests and on riverbanks in Latvia, just like liverwort. An infinite number of varieties of wood anemones has also been found – the beautifully lavender blue ‘Alleni’ and ‘Mart’s Blue’, the slightly lighter ‘Robinsoniana’, but especially beautiful is the double flowered, white ‘Vestal’. Estonian teacher Taavi Tuulik often held biology classes in the open air on the island of Hiiumaa. There he found many unique variations of the yellow wood anemone with the help of his students. Dug up and propagated, they now make Estonia well known throughout the world (www.rarebulbs.lv). It should be noted, however, that diversity, including double flowered forms, emerged only after the Chernobyl disaster. This is, in fact, not that unique – many varieties of phlox, lilies, peonies and other flowers acquired unusual shapes because of the radiation. While this is interesting, I would probably not choose to grow them in my garden.
Liverwort and wood anemones in Latvia are threatened by a fungal disease that also occurs in the wild. It can take over and destroy an entire collection in a short period of time. In the first year, the infected tubers appear swollen and become thicker. The following year, they are covered with a white fungus, but instead of flowers small, dark brown mushrooms pop up from the ground instead. An approximate shovel’s-depth of infected soil should be dug up and burned.
In the past, when farmers didn’t have weather forecasts available, they knew that when liverwort or wood anemones began to bloom, they would soon have to start working with the soil – sowing and planting.