The article below is from A Modern Herbal, by Mrs. M. Grieve, F.R.H.S., originally published in 1931 by Jonathan Cape in England and Harcourt, Brace & Company in the U.S., the latter as reprinted by Dover Publications since 1971.
Petasites vulgaris (DESF.)
Synonyms. Langwort. Umbrella Plant. Bog Rhubarb. Flapperdock. Blatterdock. Capdockin. Bogshorns. Butter-Dock
Parts Used. Root
The Butterbur, a plant nearly allied to the Coltsfoot — being the Tussilago petasites of Linnæus — is found in wet ground, low-lying, marshy meadows and by riversides, but is usually local.
¶Description. It has a fleshy, stout root-stock, extensively creeping, which, like the Coltsfoot, sends up the flowers before the leaves appear. The flower-heads are, however, not produced singly, on separate stalks, but in crowned clusters in a dense spike, with many bracts interspersed, at the summit of a round, thick flower-stalk, 4 inches to a little over a foot in height, which first appears at the end of February or beginning of March, and is generally of a purplish hue.
There are two kinds of flowers — the male or stamen-bearing and the female or seed-producing — as a rule on different spikes, the female flowers being in denser, longer spikes than the male flowers, which are in shorter, loose clusters. Occasionally a few female flowers are found on the male spikes, and a few male flowers on the female spikes. The corollas are pale reddish purple or flesh-coloured, bell-shaped in the male flowers, and containing abundant nectar, but only thread-like in the female flowers, which contain no nectar, and are succeeded by the white feathery pappus, which crowns the seeds.
In April, as the flowers begin to decay, the leaves appear. They are on stout hollowed channelled foot-stalks, and when full grown very large — the largest leaves of any plant in Great Britain — the blade sometimes attaining 3 feet in diameter. It is roundish, heartshaped at the base, scalloped at the edges, with the portion between the projections finely toothed. The leaves are white and cobwebby with down both above and below when young, but when mature, most of the covering disappears from the upper surface, though the leaves still remain grey and more or less downy beneath.
The name of the genus, Petasites, is derived from petasos, the Greek word for the felt hats worn by shepherds, and familiar to us in representations of Mercury, in reference to the large size of the leaves, which could be used as a head-covering. No other vegetation can live where these leaves grow, for they exclude light and air from all beneath, and where the plant abounds, it has been described as ‘the most pernicious of all the weeds which this country produces.’
The name Butterbur is supposed to have been given it because formerly these large leaves were used to wrap butter in during hot weather. ‘Lagwort’ is an old name we sometimes find for it, in reference to the leaves delaying their appearance till after the flowers have faded, though once the leaf-shoots make a start, they grow with almost tropical luxuriance.
‘The early flowering of this rank weed,’ Hooker writes, ‘induces the Swedish farmers to plant it near their beehives. Thus we see in our gardens the bees assembled on its affinities, P. alba and P. fragrans, at a season when scarcely any other flowers are expanded.’
In Germany an old name for the plant was Pestilenzenwurt, but one finds really very little either of evil or good assigned by the older writers to the Butterbur as compared with most other herbs. The old German name was given it, not as suggesting the plant was provocative of pestilence, but as an indication of its value as a remedy in time of such calamity (Henslow).
Anne Pratt says the former name of this plant was the ‘plague-flower,’ as it gained a successful reputation among the few remedies during the time of that malady. Lyte, in his Herbal, 1578, calls it ‘a soveraigne medicine against the plague’, and remarks of its leaves that ‘one of them is large enough to cover a small table, as with a carpet,’ and they are often 2 feet in width. Under its ample foliage, the poultry in farm meadows shelter themselves from the rain, or find a cool retreat from the noonday sun. The Swedish farmers plant it in great quantities near their beehives, as bees are attracted by its flowers.
The seeds in some parts of the country have been used for love divination.
‘The seeds of butterdock must be sowed by a young unmarried woman half an hour before sunrise on a Friday morning, in a lonesome place. She must strew the seeds gradually on the grass, saying these words:
I sow, I sow!
The seed being scattered, she will see her future husband mowing with a scythe at a short distance from her. She must not be frightened, for if she says, “Have mercy on me,” he will immediately vanish! This method is said to be infallible, but it is looked upon as a bold, desperate, and presumptuous undertaking!’
¶Part Used. The rhizome, or root-stock, which is blackish on the outside and whitish internally, and has a bitter and unpleasant taste, due to the resinous, bitter juice it contains.
¶Medicinal Action and Uses. Butterbur root is medicinally employed as a heart stimulant, acting both as a cardiac tonic and also as a diuretic. It has been in use as a remedy in fevers, asthma, colds and urinary complaints, a decoction being taken warm in wineglassful doses, frequently repeated.
Both Butterbur and Coltsfoot are specific homœopathic remedies for severe and obstinate neuralgia in the small of the back and the loins, a medicinal tincture being prepared in each case.
Gerard writes of the Butterbur:
‘The roots dried and beaten to powder and drunke in wine is a soveraigne medicine against the plague and pestilent fevers, because it provoketh sweat and driveth from the heart all venim and evill heate; it killeth worms. The powder of the roots cureth all naughty filthy ulcers, if it be strewed therein.’
‘It is a great strengthener of the heart and cheerer of the vital spirits: . . . if the powder thereof be taken in wine, it also resisteth the force of any other poison . . . the decoction of the root in wine is singularly good for those that wheeze much or are shortwinded. . . . The powder of the root taketh away all spots and blemishes of the skin.’
Another species known as the Winter Heliotrope, or Sweet-scented Coltsfoot (P. fragrans), flourishes in warm districts like South Devon, where it is abundant. It is even more spreading and luxuriant in growth than our native Coltsfoot, but as it flowers in the poorest soil and clothes waste land with its handsome foliage, it is certainly welcome outside the garden, and is even frequently planted in shrubberies. The fragrant flowers, which have the scent of vanilla and are like Butterbur in appearance, are freely borne in the depth of winter. The leaves appear in the spring and in favourable situations remain green till the young leaves appear in the succeeding season.