Rare plant of the month: April 2017

Hepatica transsilvanica ‘Blumenstadt Erfurt’

Welcome to the second in our series of blogs about rare plants growing with Plant Guardians in gardens around the UK.

Plants in the genus Hepatica are found across the northern hemisphere from Central Europe to Asia, Japan, North America and Canada. They belong in the Ranunculaceae family. Flowering early, from February onwards (in the mountains as snows recede) continuing well into March and April, with beautiful cheerful flowers in colours from white through blues to pinks and dark purple. Growing in British gardens since the 18th C, in the wild they prefer sunny slopes in deciduous woodland, where they have protection from summer sun.

There are now around 12  Hepatica species  commonly accepted, the most widespread, H. nobilis growing across the full range. One European species however is indigenous only to the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, Romania – Hepatica transsilvanica.  A woodland flower, it is slightly taller than most other Hepatica species.

Plants often represent links between people and places, but sometimes the story represents a far bigger narrative. This plant, discovered by accident, is a telling example of how ephemeral life can be.

When Andreas Händel  was visiting his home town of Erfurt in Germany, he came across a group of beautiful little Transylvanian hepaticas growing, most unusually, in December! Andreas discovered a poignant and heartwarming story behind this early-flowering cultivar, now called Hepatica transsilvanica ‘Blumenstadt Erfurt’. The plant now lives on in Glenn Shapiro’s National Plant Collection of Hepatica and Razvan Chisu, who is himself from Transylvania, has registered it in the Plant Guardian scheme.

Hepatica transsilvanica 'Blumenstadt'
Hepatica transsilvanica ‘Blumenstadt Erfurt’

Published in GartenPraxis, 4, April 2012, p.55, Andreas described the astonishing history of the plant…

Once when visiting my home town of Erfurt, I spotted a group of flowering sky-blue Transylvanian hepaticas shining out in the distance in a small shady front garden – it was Christmas!

I rang the doorbell. A surly-looking woman appeared at a little window but didn’t even wait to hear me out. She slammed the window shut, saying “I’m giving none of it away!”

Two weeks later I stood at the door again, but this time with a box full of hepaticas, corydalis and aconites. It was all as before: a ring at the door, the little window opening, and an even surlier face, but before she could slam the window I held up the box. She was taken aback just enough this time for me to finish my question and to offer the box as compensation. The decisive factor in the window not being slammed again was probably the one word: Transylvania! She was suddenly very interested in how I knew where this plant came from.

She let me into the house and over a cup of tea told me the remarkable history of the plant. Her great-grandmother, who was born in Transylvania, had found it as a young woman during a new-year walk in the woods near Sibiu, at that time still called Hermannstadt, where the family lived. The whole wood, which was full of hepaticas later in the year, was still bare; this plant alone was in full bloom. It was taken and planted in the garden, and it soon became a family treasure. It was divided and planted out in several parts of the garden, and neighbours and passers-by all stopped in amazement to see it. Her grandmother then planted a 20-meter-long border on both sides of the path from garden gate to front door, and for many years it was a sensation known far and wide when in bloom.

Then came the end of the war and the expulsion of the Germans – the family could only load the absolute essentials on a handcart. She herself, ten years old at the time, was only allowed to take one toy, there wasn’t room for any more. But as they were leaving she ran back and grubbed up a piece of ‘grandma’s flower’, wrapped it up in an old cloth and hid it under the cart in a box. The plant survived over three weeks in flight, and three more moves in the following decades, but it was always well protected in memory of the family and the old birthplace. Now I could understand why the woman didn’t readily part with it! On my way off I was allowed, under her watchful eye, to cut out a small piece, which I have since propagated and named after my home town. A while ago I stood at the garden fence again, but both the surly woman and the hepatica were gone.

Glenn Raz Hepatica transsilvanica 'Blumenstadt' 4
Razvan Chisu & Glenn Shapiro with H. transsilvanica ‘Blumenstadt Erfurt’

Glenn Shapiro, writes: “Hepatica transsilvanica ‘Blumenstadt Erfurt’ now thrives in the National Plant Collection.

The surly-looking woman may have gone from Erfurt, but her great-grandmother’s Hepatica, which she valued above her toys while fleeing Transylvania as a small child, lives on.

A friend, John Wilkinson (NW Group) often works in Germany and reads Garten Praxis so he cut out the article and very kindly translated it for me.

Hepatica - first mention in Garten Praxis
GartenPraxis cutting from 2012

When Andreas Händel came to England he and brought some of his treasured hepaticas for my National Plant Collection. The one I have the strongest affection for is ‘Blumenstadt Erfurt’, because of this story, poignant to so many families in our very turbulent world. It came to me in 2013 as a small piece and only got large enough to split into three last autumn so Raz has one of the first divisions.

We all have plants evoking memories of family and friends; there must be a story about the origin of every garden cultivar, most lost in the mists of time. It is the job of our National Plant Collections to keep them all alive and well. With climate change it may soon be a different set of cultivars that best suit our gardens, and with the help of Plant Heritage and its members, older ones have a chance of still being around for us to return to.”

Glenn Shapiro is National Collection Holder of Hepatica and joint Collections Coordinator for Cumbria; Razvan Chisu, Plant Guardian & Collections Coordinator for Cheshire; John Wilkinson, Collections Coordinator for Lancashire, Vice-Chair NW Group.