Spring Ephemerals: Amazing Hepatica

By: Lisa Liotta

If you take a walk through a Vermont deciduous hardwood forest in mid-April, you’re likely to see a scene that looks pretty close to the one on the right.  (That is, once all last winter’s snow has melted!)  From the time the snow melts, there’s a usually a window of about six weeks until the trees grow leaves.  Once trees produce leaves, very little sunshine will reach the forest floor. This forest will be green and shady, a very different picture from this:

But, for now, it might look a little barren. However, if you slow down as you walk through the forest and look closer…..closer……look down to the ground, you might just discover the first wildflowers of the year!  Tiny Hepatica can be found among the dead leaves growing only about four to six inches tall, heralding the arrival of spring with their beautiful delicate blooms (see left).

Hepatica are often the first spring ephemerals to flower in Vermont.  The blooms can be white, pink, purple and almost blue. Spring ephemerals are a special kind of wildflower that begin growing and often flowering as soon as the snow melts.  The flowers of spring ephemerals are typically small and close to the ground.  The plants expend all of their energy into quickly producing buds, then blooms and seeds all within the approximate 6-week window when the sun shines on the forest floor.

Now, take look at these Hepatica a little closer:

Can you see the tiny hairs that cover the stems? These hairs prevent ice condensation and act as an insulator to the plant, protecting it from damaging spring frosts.  For a few nights this week low temperatures will dip into the 20’s at Niquette Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Champlain, but these plants have adapted to survive!

Another Hepatica plant pictured below has found a little extra protection from frost and cold by growing right up against the limestone ledge (see left)

And, this clump below grows up through last year’s leaves, which also provide insulation to the plant from frost and freezing temperatures once the snow disappears by trapping warmer air around the plant, and preventing frost from forming on the plant:

Hepaticas prefer to grow in alkaline soils which can be found near limestone ledges or outcroppings.  At Niquette Bay State Park, you’ll find these flowers in bloom now along the Ledges Trail as it approaches Lake Champlain.  In another week or two, Hepatica will be visible throughout the park and Vermont.  Don’t delay if you’d like to see their performance, they’ll only be featured for a few weeks!

*Join Lisa Liotta for a Spring Wildflower Hike on Saturday, April 26 from 10:00am - 12:00pm at Niquette Bay State Park. To RSVP call 802-893-5210 or send an email to niquette.bay@state.vt.us. For more information, visit the Vermont State Parks events page at: http://vtstateparks.com/htm/events.htm


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