And there they are… in the Lincolnshire garden, a drift of hepaticas: purest white, blue, a rather violet blue, and pale pink. They are showing in the Borders garden too, large bland blue in …., slightly violet in the form we have oh H. transsylvanica, and anemone-flowered in ‘Ada Scott’.
But these, however delightful, are all simple things (and cheap to buy), compared to some of the amazing and beautiful hybrids appearing out of Japan, and now in some British nurseries. But I weaken. There’s something completely special about almost any hepatica (well, bar the pink one in the Borders, and whose colour looks as if it’s been left in the washing machine too long).
What? Well over a hundred pounds for that? ‘That’ consists of three leaves, a flower bud, and a flower, all sitting smugly in a 5cm pot. ‘But you have to have it’, says the voice of Unreason. ‘But I’ve just paid the electricity bill, and anyway, think of the chickens…’ And I do. In the Lincolnshire garden, we got back to find a dozen of them, invaders from the farm, had scuffled their way through a yard of pulmonarias, rather more of saxifrage, and were just about to start on… Well, the aristocrat in the pot was a Japanese Hepatica, a wonderful indigo double, petal arrange with mathematical precision. Wonders like it have been bred and vastly admired in the country since the 18th century. They, and the modern ones, are totally exquisite, though should be sold in this country with pronounciation notes to their Japanese names. They often claim to be forms of Hepatica japonica. Many are bred by one man: Mr. Kooichi Iwafuchi.
The ones the chickens were about to destroy was merely the single white form of Hepatica nobilis, native to northern Europe and eastern America, and the remaining plant of a previous infatuation. However, even that modest species has produced some enchanting things. There were once many doubles in shades of blue, pink, and white, and were once so common that in the cool north, and especially in Scottish kitchen gardens, they were a common sight as borders to the vegetable beds. In my chicken-free Scottish Borders garden, there are a few clumps of the old double pink, though the doubling isn’t especially intense, and the pink isn’t thrilling. Still, have a look if you come across plants in a garden sale, for some have wonderfully marked in silvery green.
The basic species is very variable in the wild, some with plain green leaves, pointed or flattened lobes, and so on. The flowers come in shades of blue, some completely thrilling as in the amethyst washed blues of some sorts of H, transsylvanica, pinks that can be dull and washy or sometimes almost magenta, and white. More importantly, if you’ve time to look for them, there are various sorts of double. In some of them, the anthers have become partly petalloid and make a handsome cluster of blue tubes around the green ovary. In others, the whole process has gone a lot further, and the anthers and ovaries have become entirely like petals, but because of the way the flower forms, are in whorls or rows of diminishing size.
Amongst named sorts are some real ‘lovelies’ like the large powder blue ‘Ballardii’, and the pom-pom centred ‘Ada Scott’ (probably the same as ‘Ellison Spence’). Though they do well in deep shade in Lincolnshire, whilst in the Scottish garden, they don’t in the least mind the poor soil at the base of a west facing wall, though pigeons and the occasional pheasant have a slight fancy for young leaves. Of none of them have I ever had enough to put round the lettuce patch. Nurseries sell plain ones at around three pounds a shot, and double that for grand named ones.
There is one rather jolly plant, almost certainly a species called Hepatica maxima, with large shiny seeds, black mostly, but a prominent white spot at one end. The flowers are less exciting. Pigeons have decimated mine.
I like them amongst almost any of the early flowering Cardamine species, especially C. pentaphyllos, and the thuggish C. enneaphyllos. They also look well with the very last of the snowdrops, and really good amongst new tulip foliage. There’s no point in having them anywhere near chionodoxas, whose blue flowers are of similar shape and size.
Old growers used to harvest seed as soon as the seeds (technically, the achenes). separate easily from the cluster. Seed was then surface sown in pots, a roof slate put over the soil, and the whole thing kept outdoors in the shade. The slate was lifted in early spring as seed began to germinate. I’ve tried it and it works. Nowadays, fridges and plastics make things easier, though none of even that will work if the seed has dried and gone heavily dormant.
None are aggressive plants, so watch what’s happening to them. They give in easily to the demands of epimediums and other thugs, and expire when you are not looking. The Japanese aristocrats really need pots or pans to themselves, and a shaded alpine house.
If you want to see more sort, there are masses of pictures on the Scottish Rock Garden Club website, on that of Edrom Nurseries, and in the catalogue of Ashdown Nurseries. They make dangerous viewing, if your voice of Unreason suggests, as does mine, that you turn down the heating and wear more woollies, raise a mortgage and blow the whole lot on, yes, hepaticas.