Things move on

So it’s farewell to snowdrops, winter aconites, and crocus. Now we welcome coltsfoot, lesser celandine and butterbur to the floral stage. All have an appeal for pollinators, and deserve a very warm welcome.

Coltsfoot can be mistaken for a dandelion at first glance.  But look closely and you will see differences. The  coltsfoot’s stem is a give-away;  it is like a close up view of fish-scales. In Sweden the plant was known as Hästhov (horse hoof), reflecting the shape of the scales. Leaves come later, and initially the bright daisy-like yellow flowers lure early pollinators including queen bumble bees and a variety of flies.

Named Tusilago or fárfara, in Spanish coltsfoot also had the equivalent popular name of ‘pie de caballo’ or ‘uña de caballo’, which means ‘horse hoof’ or ‘horse nail’ – there seems to be similar folklore names in other parts of Europe (the Portuguese equivalents are arguably more fun and go along the lines of ‘mule hoof’ or ‘donkey hoof’).

Like many plants, coltsfoot was used as an early medicine. You might have thought those scaly stems would have put folk off.  However, it was reckoned to be a cure for colds, coughs and sore throats.   But eating any part of this plant causes an array of illnesses, including liver damage. 

The coltsfoot was also viewed at one time as a substitute for tobacco, and smoked! This strikes me as likely to have simply made it even more useful as a cough remedy, a vicious circle perhaps! In some quarters the sight of coltsfoot apparently indicated that somewhere, somebody was about to experience justice being done.

If dandelion and coltsfoot are often confused, the same can perhaps be said of winter aconite and lesser celandine. The yellow flowers of the latter are associated with the confirmation that spring is truly here. The glossy petals are vivid yellow in the centre but often fade to near white at the tips.  The distinctive heart shaped leaves are perhaps the most reliable sign of this plant.   Lesser celandine is widespread, being found in woods, on roadsides, beneath hedges and along river banks. The petals, and there are usually nine, remind many of buttercups and are noticeably pointy.

Flies as well as bees pollinate these flowers. There are ancient tales of the plants being crushed and applied to bleeding wounds. Others refer to it by the name of pilewort and as you might suspect it was used to tackle haemorrhoids.  Remains of the plant have shown up in the Mesolithic middens on Oronsay. In pre-war Germany it was grown to feed livestock, such were the prices for conventional foodstuffs.

Finally, to the delightfully named butterbur . This rather striking plant grows in clusters, and there are several near our Battleby office just north of Perth. The star-shaped flowers sit at the end of comparatively thin stalks. The leaves eventually become so big that they were once used in some parts to wrap butter.

The plant has an interesting male-female divide and which might even be related to how our ancestors actively looked after honey bees.  Further information on the butterbur species can be found in ….was the feature of a NatureScot (then Scottish Natural Heritage) blog. This is the explanation behind the peculiar distribution … “One of the most fascinating things about the butterbur is the odd distribution of the male and female plants.  For some reason male plants have a wider distribution, with almost all butterbur in the south of England being male.  How could that be?  The answer could be that male plants produce both nectar and pollen at a time of year when few native species are flowering.  There is a suggestion that in the past the male plants were deliberately moved about as a source of food for honey bees during the early spring.  We might buy our sugar from shops, but in the past honey was highly valued and used for sweetening so planting butterbur to help the bees is a plausible explanation.”

The star-shaped flowers sit at the end of comparatively thin stalks. The leaves start as delicate under-stated heart-shaped elements, but eventually become so big that they were used in some parts to wrap butter.

The non-native, and often invasive, white butterbur is more abundant at this time of year, particularly beside rivers. It has a couple of interesting names in Gaelic – gallan mòr is the more common of the two and means ‘big stalk’, the other is puball beannach meaning ‘peaked tent’. The Spanish name most commonly used for butterbur is Petasita from Petasites hybridus. Petasites is the generic name derived from the Greek ‘petasos’ meaning “wide brim hat”, in recognition of the large leaves of the plant.

These plants aren’t what you would classify as garden plants. But at this time of year they do add a lovely blast of colour on rivers, verges and margins.