Butterbur: The Versatile Plant with a Rich History in Herblore

Butterbur FlowerPhoto: magnus.hagdorn

A Brief Description of Butterbur

In early spring, a stalk of Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) raises its reddish flowers. Later in the season, its leaves appear in the shape of hearts, but with a fuzzy underside.

Whether any of the following nicknames help to describe this plant may depend on each person’s imagination, but the list includes bog rhubarb, bogshorns, langwort and umbrella leaves. There are also several riffs on the word “dock”: blatterdock, butter-dock, butterly dock, capdockin and flapperdock.

Beyond the visual description, Butterbur has a distinctive and rather unpleasant aroma.

Butterbur’s Habitat

Common ButterburPhoto: Marco Hebing

Butterbur grows in marshlands or near rivers or damp ditches in northern Asia, Europe and North America. Some of the aforementioned nicknames, like “bog rhubarb”, already indicate their preference for wet ground.

Since Butterbur is native to Asia, it is labelled an invasive species. However, it is considered a serious problem, possibly because few people care deeply about the exact mix of plants in bogs and marshes.

Butterbur in Herblore and Natural Medicine

Butterbur PlantPhoto: Pimlico Badger

Butterbur has a long history in folk medicine and herblore. It has been used externally to cover ulcerated or wounded skin. Various Butterbur preparations have been taken internally for ailments such as asthma and whooping cough; the modern prescriptive phrase would be “anti-spasmodic”.

Modern studies have been conducted to investigate whether Butterbur could treat other problems, such as migraine headaches and allergic rhinitis. Despite some early hopes based on folk medicine, Butterbur seems unlikely to help heal skin problems such as eczema.

Various studies have shown that Butterbur does contain harmful “pyrrolizidine alkaloid” compounds. Anyone considering using a Butterbur-based herbal medication should ensure the product is “PA free”: meaning the “pyrrolizidine alkaloids” have been removed.

How to Cultivate Butterbur
Irish ButterburPhoto: _foxy

Butterbur does well in plant hardiness zones ranging from 5 through 9. It is an herbaceous perennial. Plants should be well-spaced, about 1.8m (5 feet) apart. Plant sections of the rhizomes to start them growing.

Remember that Butterbur is an invasive plant; it may outcompete others inside its preferred environment.

Appreciate Butterbur
Image of Butterbur FloretsPhoto: magnus.hagdorn

Herbalists, nature-lovers and students of botany have many reasons to appreciate Butterbur, a versatile plant with many names.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used for diagnosis or to guide treatment without the opinion of a health professional. Any reader who is concerned about his or her health should contact a doctor for advice.

Petasites hybridus near Lund, SwedenPhoto: Sigfrid Lundberg

 

 

References:
EBSCO and NYU Lanone Medical Center, “Butterbur“, 2011, referenced June 29, 2011.
Monica Rhodes, Health Wise, “Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) for migraine headaches“, updated: June 30, 2009, referenced June 29, 2011.
Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, U. of Maryland MEdical Center, “Allergic rhinitis“, reviewed Sept. 20, 2009, referenced June 29, 2011.
Michigan State University Extension, “Petasites hybridus–Hybrid Butterbur“, 11/12/99, referenced June 29, 2011.

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