By Laura & Hal Mahan
“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.” ~ Henry Van Dyke
The first delicate signs of spring appear as early as March, as the first wildflowers hide beneath dry brown leaves on the forest floor. These early bloomers, called “spring ephemerals” by botanists, take advantage of the unimpeded sunlight reaching the forest floor through the branches of leafless trees.
One of our earliest blooming native wildflowers is hepatica, or “liverleaf.” This small wildflower of the buttercup family displays light blue flowers close to the ground, with shiny, leathery leaves. If you use your imagination, the leaves could be described as liver-shaped, hence the common name of hepatica, as “hepatic” means relating to the liver.
Before the days of biochemistry and sophisticated laboratories, early herbalists shared a philosophy—known as the doctrine of signatures—that herbs resemble a specific part of the human body to give a clue as to their medicinal uses. It was reasoned that the Almighty must have set His sign upon the plant to indicate His cure for the disease. You may have wondered why many common plant names include a body part, such as “lungwort,” “spleenwort” and “bloodroot” to name a few. These names refer to the part of the body that plant was believed to cure.
Of course, nowadays, scientists generally interpret the doctrine of signatures as superstition, since similarity of plant parts and human body parts is purely coincidental. But it is interesting to learn about the history of herbalism, herbal medicines and folk medicines.
Today’s pharmacologists, microbiologists, botanists and natural-products chemists are combing the earth for phytochemicals useful in creating pharmaceuticals for treating various diseases. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, nearly 25 percent of modern drugs used in the US have been derived from plants, one reason it is so important to preserve natural ecosystems, since plants may hold undiscovered beneficial chemicals.
If you are interested in knowing more about plants and their medicinal properties, Asheville is a great place to be. There are a number of herbalist schools here as well as resources for learning the wild plants of the area. After all, it’s difficult to find and use plants if you do not know how to identify them. The North Carolina Arboretum has excellent classes with expert botanist instructors.
We can admire our mountain wildflowers both for their beauty and their biochemistry!
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit CompleatNaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.