Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
When I was in Islington and St Pancras cemetery last week, I was very excited to see an enormous patch of these leaves, poking out from under a Cherry Laurel. I had never seen leaves shaped like this before, so it was completely new to me. But a little research (and some help from my friends) convinced me that this plant is Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), a locally abundant perennial of the Daisy family, closely related to Butterbur. Those pretty leaves, which remind me of a deer’s footprint, are, according to Richard Mabey, used in Truro market to wrap bunches of violets.Winter Heliotrope flowers so early that I may have already missed the almond and vanilla scented- blooms. It was brought to the UK in 1806 from North Africa, and had already ‘escaped’ by 1835. It is described as ‘very invasive’, and my patch was looking very vigorous and hearty. However, it seems to me that context is all: here in the churchyard I can only imagine that when the plant flowers, its fragrance will provide a kind of solace to those lingering here before making their way down to the crematorium.
Under its alternative Latin name, Tussilago fragrans, Winter Heliotrope has been used as a homeopathic remedy. The following is what is said to have happened when the tincture was ‘proved’:
“Demesnes proved *Tus. fg. taking three drops of the O tincture on the tongue. After first causing a disagreeable, spiteful mood, it set up, in a few days, an opposite condition, which lasted some time. A journey taken on the ninth day of the proving, which usually caused loss of weight, did not do so. Stoutness increased, and plethora was added, later the abdominal protuberance permanently disappeared. A *Peculiar Sensation induced was as if a morsel of food lay at the bottom of the cardia and would not pass.” (from the Dictionary of Practical Materia Medica by by John Henry Clarke).
As I am sadly ignorant about homeopathy, I can only hazard a guess that Winter Heliotrope would be useful for someone who needed to be calmed down, or who needed to put on weight. However, I would be extremely happy if any of my readers who are homeopaths could put me right.
The name ‘Heliotrope’ literally means ‘to follow the sun’, and so you would expect this plant to be turning its face towards the sun, as many flowers do. However, our plant often barely sees the sun, being shade-loving and often tucked away almost out of sight. Furthermore, the colour heliotrope is a bright purple-pink, as seen in the true Heliotrope.
I can only imagine that maybe the scent of the Winter Heliotrope is reminiscent of that of the true Heliotrope, which goes under the alternate name of Cherry Pie Plant. Winter plants are often highly scented, because the cold air is less able to transport scent than the warmer breezes of summer, as anyone who has ever walked down a country lane in August, when the hedgerow is threaded with wild honeysuckle, can testify.
Winter Heliotrope is dioecious, which means that it has male and female plants (as do some of the other plants I’ve been investigating lately, such as Annual Mercury). Until very recently, only the male plant occurred in the UK, so it spread by rhizomes (modified underground stems) rather than by seed. This means that those pretty, scented flowers give up their pollen to grateful early bumblebees without any hope of benefiting from the transaction. As Winter Heliotrope often grows at roadsides, we can speculate that the activity of diggers and tractors and other machinery has served to distribute the plant along roadways.
However, according to a recent article by Ken Thompson in The Telegraph, the female Winter Heliotrope has now been spotted in West Sussex. As he puts it:
“The inability to produce seeds has hardly held back the male plant in the wild in Britain, where it is already in more than 2,000 hectads*. However, now free for the first time in 200 years to enjoy the delights of some female company, this Mediterranean native may manage to do even better in future.”
As it is a rare source of food for pollinators who emerge early in the year, this may well be something to be celebrated.
* A hectad is an area 10 km x 10 km square, and is often used to record the existence of plant and animal species.