The National Collection of Hepatica

Why Hepatica?  Why a collection?


First published in The Lakeland Gardener, Autumn 2012


I answered these questions rather flippantly in an article for the Plant Heritage North West Group Journal last spring, knowing I was addressing the converted, but I want to take this opportunity to explain properly to the unconverted.

A National Collection is the best possible excuse to justify wanting to have all of them I glibly stated, however, it is not really until you get into the detailed business of trying to obtain even a fraction of your chosen genus that you begin to fully appreciate how urgent it is to conserve them.

We are all aware that if we stop looking after our own garden it will return to the wild wood very quickly. All the precious little plants will be crowded out in no time. Cultivars of any genus are usually the work of individual Plantsmen and unless they have become popular enough to be mass produced for the garden centre shelves, they are unlikely ever to be available beyond a few specialist nurseries, and when those individuals go, the plants will hang on in a few well maintained gardens but mostly unlabeled. In the case of Hepatica, the whole genus is not really very commercially viable in the first place, especially in this country where they are not native. Let me introduce them to you formally, before I start explaining their problems.

Hepatica is a member of my favourite plant family Ranunculaceae, the buttercup family. It was formerly classified as Anemone hepatica and in the light of recent DNA analysis it is indeed closely related to that genus. The number of species within the genus is up for debate but it is about 12 including the very rare Hepatica falconeri, which is the most closely related to Anemone. The number of cultivars must be close to a thousand. If the new DNA evidence is adopted I will need to do a lot of re-labelling among the species within my collection. However, anyone serious about Hepatica is already unlikely to feel confident about the current nomenclature. The genus is confined to the northern hemisphere, as far north as the arctic circle where they will be found down to sea level, but only in the cool mountain woodlands further south, most of them preferring to be covered by snow in winter. Shade and a free draining soil, containing a lot of organic matter are essential for them to thrive.

The first problem with Hepatica from a commercial point of view is that the seed, which needs to be sown  fresh, takes at least one year to germinate, and then another two or three years to become a saleable flowering plant. The named cultivars mostly need to be propagated by division, and they are slow to bulk up to a dividable size. I have not heard of them being successfully micropropagated. Flowering between February and early April, they are at their best while many of the small specialist nurseries are still closed for the winter. On line sales must now be helping to some extent.

Plant Heritage’s Threatened Plant Project has identified a long list of named Hepatica cultivars that can no longer be sourced within the RHS Plant Finder, some of which are still thriving here, but a lot more were never in the Plant Finder. I come across intriguing names, such as ‘Troll’s Treasure’, ‘Little Abington’ which won an AGS Award of Merit in 1985, and ‘Mussels’. Edrom Nurseries is trying to track down the latter, if you know the whereabouts please get in touch. There are some excellent private collections, the best known of which is John Massey’s, the proprietor of Ashwood Nurseries. John is the ‘Guru’ of Hepatica cultivation in the UK. Edrom Nurseries’ collection has the biggest range of named selections of Hepatica japonica. Hepatica japonica cultivars are not officially part of my collection, though I do grow some of them. There are several hundred named Hepatica cultivars in Japan (very many originally collected from the wild) where they enjoy cult status, and are extremely expensive and very well looked after. The Alpine department at RHS Wisley has an outstanding collection of Hepatica, some donated by individuals and others willed to them as collections.  A few years ago they ran a ‘Hepatica Spectacular’ event, which I was very lucky to attend. The whole Alpine display house was given over to a glorious show of Hepatica in full bloom. Last year I returned as a volunteer to help with the annual re-potting of the collection, and felt very privileged to handle so many rare plants and to be able to discus them with Lucie Rudnicka who tends them. I was, however, extremely disappointed to discover that they do not propagate any of these rare Hepaticas, their only function is to take their turn in the display house when they are in flower, like museum specimens. If they lose one they don’t have a back up propagated from it. This policy demonstrates just how important Plant Heritage National Collections are. National collection holders undertake to grow as many of the taxa within the scope of their collection as they possibly can, not just the ones they happen to like, and to propagate them if they possibly can. In fact they are encouraged to keep three of each plant, and to keep them properly labelled and recorded. Very good courses are run by Plant Heritage, and collection holders are encouraged to keep up to date with research within their chosen genus and preferably to add to it, and share their knowledge with others interested in the genus, and provide opportunities for enthusiasts to view their collection.

Hepatica nobilis var. japonica growing at Wisley


The first question – why Hepatica? – is much more personal: a long gaze at an iridescent blue gem of a nobilis flower penetrated deep into my soul, and lodged there permanently.

Two deep blue nobilis, a nobilis var. pyrenaica ‘Apple Blossom’, and acutiloba alba were my first Hepaticas, ordered from Ashwood Nurseries in the mid 90s, to be planted in pots as suitable subjects for a shaded yard between our house and farm buildings. To benefit from the early spring sunlight the pots were placed on the outside of the kitchen window sill, which was next to the door of my lambing barn. Night and day inside that door in March it was chaos, while my pedigree Bluefaced Leicester ewes were lambing, but one step outside and I escaped for a few moments of tranquillity, to drink in that unforgettable colour. I was bewitched.

Hepatica nobilis


Self seedlings were carefully labelled and potted up individually from those original plants, but it usually takes three years before they are big enough to flower. You can imagine my excitement when a seedling from my original blue nobilis produced bright magenta flowers. Soon after, a  seedling from the ‘Apple Blossom’ pot, which I had already noticed had the acutiloba shaped leaves of the of the plant in the next pot, though marbled like those of nobilis var. pyrenaica ‘Apple Blossom’, produced mid blue flowers with the upright habit of the acutiloba; I called it ‘Hazelwood Froggie’. The cross proved to be sterile, as is usually the case with parents of different Hepatica species. It was at that point that I realised the potential for coming up with a few distinctive plants of my own to propagate. This was the point of no return, I was a fallen woman.

‘Hazelwood Froggie


Hepatica nobilis var. pyrenaica





Hepatica display in the alpine department of RHS Wisley


Some of the plants on display at the ‘Hepatica Spectacular’ event


New plants were ordered at the rate of about half a dozen each spring for the next few years. I was fascinated by the huge variety of colours and forms, including doubles, all stunningly beautiful in their own special ways. Stamens are often in contrasting colours, or sometimes completely absent; Hepatica ‘Millstream Merlin’ is an example, the gentian violet colour looks unusually solid without them. The foliage is also often very interesting; nobilis var. pyrenaica has very tough marbled leaves that look good throughout the year, nobilisCremar’ has mottled leaves expanding increasingly towards the edges reminiscent of curly parsley. Hepatica maxima have an edging of fine silvery hairs. Many Hepatica have purple backed leaves, such as Hepatica yamatutai which also has beautifully shaped, slightly fleshy foliage, sometimes marbled. Hepatica transsilvanicaKonny Greenfield’ has a beautiful double blue flower. Top of my ‘wish list’ at the moment is a rare and exquisite cut leaf form of Hepatica acutiloba.



Hepatica transsilvanicaKonny Greenfield’


I joined Plant Heritage in 2006 at the suggestion of my friend the late Betty Kershaw. She was always complimentary about my ever growing and carefully labelled Hepatica collection. I think it would have remained just a collection, had I not noticed in 2009 that the previous collection holder of Hepatica, Michel Myers, had given up, and I needed a serious interest to replace my sheep flock, having just retired. The collection had got to a point at which I had obtained all of the genus that is readily available. I did not feel I could pester the experts to sell me the rarer plants, or give me guidance, entirely on my own account, but that being a National Collection holder would provide the perfect excuse. Our then chairman Jean Caldwell put me in touch with Jean Purkiss (herself a collection holder of the Geranium phaeum Group) who was until recently our collections coordinator, from whom I was only expecting advice to help me bring the collection up to the required standard. Jean was extremely helpful; after having a careful look at my plants and their labels, she looked at my nursery receipts to make sure I had had the majority of the Plant Finder entries for a reasonable length of time, and encouraged me to make an application. Not only did she guide me through the application form, she converted my hand written plant list to an Excel spread sheet format and emailed it back to me. I could not have had more help and encouragement. Once set up I am finding the list easy to keep up with.

I would recommend anyone with a real passion and commitment to a genus to work towards a National Collection. We all have bad winters and problems with certain plants (I could write several articles on that topic) but that extra commitment really does concentrate the mind and determination, especially when things go wrong. The satisfaction of seeing your favourite plants performing well is worth all the trouble.

I was awarded collection status for Hepatica species & cultivars (excluding H. nobilis var. japonica cultivars) in November 2010.

If I have whetted your appetite please come along to a ‘Hepatica Day’ on Sunday 20 March 2016. From 9.30, view my National Collection of Hepatica (most of them should be in flower) and see the spring garden, with refreshments provided.  The event continues at the Gaskell Hall Silverdale where Ashwood Nurseries will have a Hepatica sales stand, providing a unique opportunity to view and obtain their plants in the North. A light lunch is provided, and Ashwood Nurseries owner John Massey VMH will give a superbly illustrated lecture, ‘The World of Hepaticas’. Admission by ticket only, on sale from 1 October 2015.

Apply to Anne Porter,

Plant Heritage Members £21, others £25, including all refreshments

Hepatica Morning

on Saturday 20/03/2016 from 9.30

Hazelwood Farm

Hollins Lane



LA5 0UB 

Tel 01524 701276

More details


Glenn Shapiro