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Butterbur

With its magnificent leaves, pink butterbur draws attention where it is found growing in parks and gardens. This perennial plant blooms early in the spring—in February and March—before its leaves come out, hence its local name Son before the Father in Scotland. The pink flowers are somewhat unusual in shape, with several inflorescences clustered on a stem that grows up to 15.75 inches long. For the most part, nowadays, butterbur serves as an ornamental plant in connection with ponds and watercourses. In earlier times, however, it was grown first and foremost for medicinal and ethnoveterinary purposes. It had a variety of other uses too for earlier generations, among other things on account of its extremely large round leaves. These have a diameter of 15.75 to 39.37 inches, and they grow on stout stems between 23.6 and 47.5 inches tall.

Butterbur is a common cultivated plant in many European countries. It also grows naturalized in much of Europe, as well as in many parts of the eastern United States. It is considered an invasive plant and spreads mainly by vegetative reproduction from fragments of the rhizome Not everyone has viewed it with favor, among other things because its roots spread widely and are almost impossible to eradicate. Its appearance and its weed-like traits have earned it some less-than-flattering names, such as Dog Rhubarb and Gipsy’s Rhubarb in the English county of Somerset, and Snake’s Rhubarb in Dorset.

Origin and Cultivation

Butterbur originated, botanists believe, in Southern and Central Europe, in western Siberia, and in the Caucasus Mountains. Several writers of antiquity cited its value as a medicinal herb. It has probably been cultivated at least since the Middle Ages.

Male plants are dominating in many places like Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. These are thought to be clones from deliberately planted specimens, which are supposed to have been introduced in order to provide nectar for domestic bees. Because of the early flowering, many butterbur plants were sown near beehives in antiquity. Because of its large leaves and great capacity to spread, cultivators kept it separate from herbs and vegetables. In southern Sweden, it was often grown close to the village pond. This seems to have been the case in many parts of Europe.

Medicinal Plant

The rhizomes of the plant contains two active ingredients: petasin and isopetasin. Greek physician Dioscorides (ca. 40-90 CE) stressed the plant’s medicinal value. If ground up and then smeared on the skin, for example, it could help to ease malignancies and other diseases. Medieval physicians prescribed it for gout.

In olden times, butterbur was known as Pestilence Wort: in German Pestwurtz, in Danish Pestilensrod, in Swedish Pestrot, in Estonian katkujuur. The common assumption, accordingly, is that it was used against plague. Although this is a widespread belief, the first report to this effect is found only in a work from 1530, by the German physician Hieronymus Bock. The claim is then repeated in later handbooks of medicine. According to British herbalist John Gerard’s Herball (1597), for instance, the dried powdered root of butterbur, mixed with wine, furnished a superior medicine against the plague and pestilent fevers.

Some European pharmacopeias commended the use of the highly aromatic rootstock for diaphoretic purposes in connection with chest diseases, fevers, gout, and epilepsy and for external application on boils and skin ulcers. Manuals on the gathering of medicinal herbs instructed that the root was to be harvested late in autumn or early in spring. Butterbur also figured in traditional medicine in many areas. Sources from Central Europe cite its use as an expectorant and for the relief of insect stings. In England, a cream made from it was applied to skin blemishes and sores.

More recently, experiments have shown that the rhizomes contain ingredients that can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraine symptoms. Extracts of the root are available within alternative medicine for this purpose, while extract of butterbur leaf is said to work as an antihistamine in reducing allergy symptoms. German companies are therefore buying roots and leaves from various parts of Europe in order to produce herbal medicine.

For Treating Animal Diseases

Prior to the turn of the 20th century, farmers in Northern Europe appear to have used butterbur mainly for ethnoveterinary purposes. Thanks to a study by the amateur botanist Gdsta Ilien, we now have detailed documentation about the role played by butterbur in popular botany in southern Sweden during preindustrial times. Ilien found that, in many cases, it was in connection with pig breeding that butterbur was grown on Scanian farmsteads. It was thus in the vicinity of the hog pen that it often grew most profusely. Many of the plantings could be dated to the 18th and 19th centuries. Farmers used the leaves, according to Ilien’s informants, for prophylactic purposes in connection with pig raising. They cut up the leaves and stems, blended in some grits, and fed the resulting mixture to the pigs. Other sources explained that the farmers boiled the roots, and used the resulting solution to treat erysipelas, a contagious and malignant bacterial infection that is found among pigs, and that is caused by the bacterium Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae. The same use is also known from Denmark.

Finally, in many parts of Europe, the root was used to combat lung and liver diseases in horses.

For Use as a Fodder

Butterbur has also served as a livestock fodder, particularly during spring. Farmers in Northern Europe believed it encouraged the production of milk, and so planted it in horse and cattle pastures. It probably served as an important fodder in an era when the underfeeding of stabled livestock during winter was common. As late as in the 1940s, in fact, farmers in some parts of southern Sweden continued to use the leaves as a stable feed for their cows. According to reports, the effect was a rapid increase in the milk yield and without any alteration in the flavor of the milk.

The leaves were also used as a fodder for the pigs, to the satisfaction of the latter. Around midsummer, farmers in some parts of southern Sweden made hay by harvesting the leaves of the plant together with meadow grass. Butterbur has also served as a fodder elsewhere in Northern Europe. In some parts of Italy, its fresh leaves are still used as fodder for hens.

Butterbur can also be utilized as human food. In Turkey, the peasants still grind and boil the petioles, which are cooked like a vegetable meal.

Attributes

Many Europeans believed that butterbur conducts lightning. This is reflected in several folk names given to the plant: thunderdock in England, tordenskrwppe in Denmark, and tordonskmppa in southern Sweden. It was observed in the late 19th century that household servants in Scania would place butterbur leaves in the eaves of buildings on Midsummer’s Eve, in the hope of ensuring that lightning would not strike there. There are also reports that, even as late as the 19th century, village folk would plant butterbur in order to keep evil spirits away.

Furthermore, butterbur is not merely decorative, nor is it useful just as animal feed. In the 18th century, Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus noted that chickens found protection under the large leaves of this plant from rain and from birds of prey. Observers from a variety of countries found that free-running chickens, turkeys, domestic ducks, and the like sought protection under butterbur leaves when it rained. The name butterbur—recorded for the first time by Wilhelm Turner in the mid-1500s—comes from the use made of its leaves for wrapping bars of butter.

The leaves also served as a kind of toy. Reports from Scandinavia and the Balkans tell of children using them “as umbrellas.” Indeed, butterbur has been known in some parts of the United Kingdom, in Somerset for example, as the umbrella plant. Gerard claimed in 1598 that the leaves were large enough “to keepe a man’s head from raine, and from the heate of the sunne.” In Catalan and Portuguese, butterbur is known as sombrera and sombreiro respectively, meaning “hat.” Indeed, the Greek word that Dioscorides used for it was petasides, which derives from a kind of wide-brimmed hat known as a petasos.

Ingvar Svanberg

Further Reading

Chizzola, Remegius, Bernhard Ozelsberger, and Theodor Langer. “Variability in Chemical Constituents in Petasites hybridus from Austria.” Biochemical Systematics and Ecology 28 (2000): 421-32.

Lipton, R. B., H. Gobel, K. M. Einhaupl, K. Wilks, and A. Mauskop. “Petasites hybridus Root (Butterbur) Is an Effective Preventive Treatment for Migraine.” Neurology 64 (2004): 2240-44.

 
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