After the bone-chilling winter we endured it’s not surprising the early birds of the plant kingdom are a little reluctant to break through frozen ground to show us their greenery. As we enter a relatively balmy second week of April even the usual early blooms of crocus, narcissus and primula are noticeably late to turn up for the spring garden party.
However, despite the cold weather, there is one tough cookie that likes to get its pollination done and dusted early, and if you happened to stroll through Ivan Forrest gardens in the last few weeks you may have noticed its mysterious softball-sized globes of flower-heads scattered up and down the boggy bank just north of the waterfall feature.
The plant is called Petasites japonicus, a herb native to Asia and Europe that is not only interesting for its backwards ‘flower first and ask questions later’ cycle of growth, or the giant foliage that appears later in the season. This well-known perennial has also been used around the world as a dubious medicinal remedy, a method of food preservation, and is a wildly popular ingredient in Japanese cuisine.
The first sign of Petasites growth begins to appear in late March. That’s when colonies of cream coloured flower heads randomly start popping up and down among the spring debris.
But these early risers only hang around long enough to be pollinated by the few bees and butterflies that are awake at this time of the year, and before you can get a whiff of their fragrant daisy-like globes, they quickly disappear like those Whack-A-Mole carnival games at the CNE midway.
The flowers may be gone in a blink of an eye, but after a brief intermission the more familiar second act gets underway, when enormous blades of heart-shaped leaves unfold in an almost Jekyll and Hyde transformation that creates a tropical looking canopy so different in appearance from the earlier growth it’s hard to believe it is the same plant.
The plants botanical name of Petasites is actually a reference to these characteristic giant leaves. The word is derived from the Greek ‘petasos’ which means ‘broad rimmed hat’ and in its native Asian habitat the foliage was actually used as a hat and even an umbrella by mischievous children playing in the Petasites patch. The plant has also amassed hundreds of common names over the years, some of the more familiar being Butterbur, Sweet Coltsfoot, Bog rhubarb and Fuki.
Aside from providing entertainment for children, the supposedly antibacterial properties of the mammoth leaves of Petasites were used as a wrapping for butter to prevent it from turning rancid in the days before refrigeration, hence the name Butterbur.
It is those same antibacterial qualities that also made the plant popular as a poultice to fight infections on wounds as well as a cure-all remedy for migraine, upset stomach and even hay fever. In 14th century Europe, ‘Plague flower’ was added to the growing roster of common names when it was tried as a desperate last ditch attempt to cure the bubonic plague.
In China, Korea and especially Japan, Fuki is the common name most associated with Petasites and both the blossoms and leaf stems are still used as a favourite ingredient in Asian cooking. After being soaked to remove harmful alkaloids, they are sometimes used as a side vegetable or are stir-fried and turned into a popular relish call Fuki-miso.
As an ornamental plant, colonies of Petasites japonicus can be a welcome attention getter in cultivated bog gardens, but they can be aggressive and I have spent more than a few days trying to keep them from marching out of bounds.
If left unattended for a few years, they will often ditch their benevolent Dr. Jekyll persona to become Mr. Hyde and use their underground runners to overpower nearby plants when conditions are favourable.
So unless you want an endless supply of temporary umbrellas or a makeshift ‘petasos’ it would be advisable to keep them out of small spaces.
Steven Chadwick is a professional gardener and horticulturist, and longtime Beach resident