The palish plant in question is Petasites japonicus, or rather its inflorescences. I usually ask if the enquirer knows the British native Butterbur Petasites hybridus (most don't), as it makes it easier to explain that this is a Japanese Butterbur, whose inflorescences appear now, to be followed by large 'rhubarb-like' leaves. There's no doubt that it has a very strange appearance, with the inflorescence appearing close to the ground as a cluster of flower-heads surrounded by broad pale green bracts: at this stage it looks rather like a miniature cauliflower, or perhaps, at a distance, a tuft of some odd primrose. Most years they get frosted at this stage, develop a manky black centre and do not develop much further, but this season they have escaped frost and have developed to their full stature, elongated on stems to 20-30 cm, and have thus become even more conspicuous than usual.
|A slightly more developed|
|Petasites japonicus en masse, Colesbourne Park, |
It has been interesting to read opinions of the plant given by the comparatively few authors who mention it. Bowles (My Garden in Spring) thought the leaves more attractive than the flowers, in which I cannot agree, while Graham Stuart Thomas (Colour in the Winter Garden) appreciated the 'toby-frill' of the bracts. In Plants for Ground-cover, however, he says of the genus as a whole: 'Rampageous spreaders in damp soil, preferably heavy. Not fit for use in gardens; ideal where large areas are to be covered and where a vigorous colonizer can be given an area to beautify and save all work.' In this he is quite right! The area in which it grows at Colesbourne is stony and dry, under trees, and the plant is undoubtedly stunted by these conditions: given a place in damp ground it would be an utter thug.
I believe that our plant is normal P. japonicus; more frequently grown, I think, is var. giganteus, which is even larger and has larger inflorescences and bigger leaves on taller stalks. Scary. This also has a variegated version, 'Nishiki-buki', with leaves ' irregularly sectored and streaked with white to yellow' (but apt to revert),according to Graham Rice's Encyclopaedia of Perennials. More attractive-sounding is f. purpureus, with purplish leaves - but how purple are they, and do they stay purple? (I suspect this is more alluring in name than in reality).
A final point of interest about this plant is that in Japan, where it is known as fuki, it is eaten as a vegetable. The petioles are cooked somewhat like rhubarb, or preserved, and the inflorescence bud is regarded as a delicacy 'with a slightly bitter but agreeable flavour' (Plants for a future). I am sorry to say that I have never ventured to try any part of the plant, but really must give it a go.
|Petasites japonicus foliage at Birtsmorton Court, June 2010|