Winter Heliotrope; Petasites fragrans

There is a patch of this plant, Winter Heliotrope, growing beside the road known as ‘The Rocks’ which skirts an area on the edge of the Forest of Dean called Clearwell Meend. I saw it as I was driving past and mistakenly thought it was a ‘ratty’ bit of Butterbur, but on more detailed investigation it is in fact a closely related plant called Winter Heliotrope. The scientific name is  Petasites and comes from the Greek word petasos, which is the word for the felt hats worn by shepherds. The leaves are quite large though not really big enough to cover your head but they are certainly soft and downy, like felt.



This is a photo of Hermes wearing a felt hat, maybe a bit more than a hat would be appropriate.
The Winter Heliotrope is a plant which has its roots in North Africa, but now has its roots all over Europe. It is quite invasive so once it gets its roots in,  it is very difficult to eradicate it. It is also quite competitive so tends to obliterate all other wild flowers.  So if you see it growing somewhere and are admiring it for its beauty? and pleasant vanilla perfume then do not be tempted to take a bit and introduce it to your wild patch at the bottom of your garden because very soon your wild patch will only contain Winter Heliotrope and shortly your entire garden will be Winter Heliotrope.
Actually, it is never a good idea to dig up wild flowers from one place and replant them else where. Also for many plants it may well be illegal. If you really want to get something in your garden which is not already there then collect seed and do it that way. Better not to interfere at all.
It was first brought to GB in 1806 as a garden plant. It flowers in December and January/February so it adds a bit of interest during the winter months, also it smells of Vanilla. By 1835 it had established itself in the wild and is now quite common across southern UK. Its poor tolerance of low temperatures has restricted its spread into northern Britain, though it might well start to appear further north as temperatures warm up. Only male plants are found in the UK so it can only spread asexually, ie by gradually growing through an area, or by a piece of the plant being up rooted and then transported to a new location, most likely by man but just possibly by large animals, like boar or deer.
As I said this plant resembles Butterbur in many respects, its leaves are similar being rounded and quite large.
The flowers are similar in colour and shape although the Butterbur has a more dense and compact head and of course they are both shade plants and flower early in the year. It is a good source of nectar so is quite beneficial to bees in early Spring. Winter heliotrope is as you might expect not terribly tolerant of frost as it originates from warmer parts of the world but it quickly recovers after a knock back.
Below is a slide show of some photos  taken on the Lancaut reserve on the banks of the river Wye just up from Chepstow… a beautifull spot.

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These are growing right beside the River Wye as you can see and are between the river and the ruins of Llancut church. There are also large numbers near by on the road from St Briavels towards Tutshill, which is where the two close ups were taken.

Finally, have you thought about the derivation of Heliotrope?  Helios is was the personification of the sun  in Greek mythology.  He was the son of the Titan Hyperion and his wife the Titaness Theia. This is a photo of his bust from a museum in Rhodes. He looks like a sunny chap.  Now trope is tropism which is movement, we have phototropism where plants grow or move towards the light and geotropism, positive in roots where they grow towards the pull of gravity, and negative in  shoots where they grow away from the pull of gravity. Heleiotrope is thus movement towards the sun and evidently the Heliotrope flowers are like sun flowers and they follow the sun each day.


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