Winter Heliotrope

This winter-flowering, vanilla-scented plant of waste places and roadsides is not native to Britain, but is a valuable source of nectar for emerging insects in the earliest days of spring.
Photo: Steve Townsend

Scientific name: Petasites fragrans

Other common names: Sweet Coltsfoot (used for plants of the genus)

Despite its racemes of pretty lilac-white flowers opening in the depths of winter, it is easy to overlook Winter Heliotrope. Often found on wasteland, railway banks and roadsides, either we are rushing past it or not seeing it amongst the rubbish that can accumulate in the places it grows. Look more closely in the winter months, however, and you may well be rewarded with the vanilla scent of this member of the Daisy family (Asteraceae), which grows up to 25 cm tall, its heart-shaped leaves appearing after the flowers in January to March. It is easier to see once the leaves appear, forming a swathe of fresh green before other plants start to grow.

Given it is relatively common in the south of Britain, and although in the same genus as the native Butterbur (Petasites hybridus), it may surprise you to know that Winter Heliotrope is an introduced species in Britain. The plant originates from northern Africa, and was brought here in the early nineteenth century as an ornamental garden plant. It is now somewhat invasive wherever it has become naturalised, forming large stands that exclude other vegetation due to the large leaves (up to 30 cm across) blocking the sunlight. Although the dioecious Winter Heliotrope can spread by either seed or underground stems (rhizomes), female plants are absent in Britain, so it spreads entirely by rhizomes.

It’s not all bad, however. Winter Heliotrope does provide food for insects in the early part of the year when other nectar sources have not yet appeared. Beekeepers used to grow it near their hives to provide nectar for any early-emerging bees.

Did you know…?

…The genus name of Petasites is derived from the Greek word, petasos, for the felt hats worn by shepherds, a reference to the large size and felty feel of leaves in plants of this genus.

…The name Heliotrope refers to the way the flowers and leaves track the Sun from east to west during the day (Helios is the Greek word for the Sun). They return to face east overnight, ready to welcome the Sun again the following day.

More information and references:

Mabey, R., 1997. Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus, London.

Rose, F. and O’Reilly, C., 2006. The Wild Flower Key, 2nd edition. Frederick Warne, London.

Stace, C., 2010. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Published: January 2014
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Steve Townsend