Thursday, April 18, 2013

Propping up the banks........

Butterbur flower spikes are rapidly elongating all along the banks of local rivers here in County Durham. There is actually more butterbur biomass below ground than above at this time of year, although that situation reverses once the massive, rhubarb-like leaves develop fully in a few weeks' time.

The plant grows from a thick, branching underground rhizome that stores starch through the winter, enabling it to flower at the earliest opportunity, before the leaves expand and start photosynthesising. Sometimes winter floods expose some of the rhizomes with their mass of fibrous roots, that can play a valuable role in stabilising riverbanks.

Where there's no network of butterbur roots winter floods can rapidly erode riverbanks, as they have done here along the river Browney near Croxdale in Durham. A woven willow bank reinforcement has been installed by the Woodland Trust  to limit the damage and trap silt. 

A little further upstream along the Browney this remarkable display of what must easiliy be more than a 1000 butterbur inflorescences testifies to a dense mass of rhizomes below ground, that are doing a good job of stabilising the river bank.


  1. Phil, Liked seeing your photos today. I have two different types in my garden, Panacides japonica and Petasites japonicus. If they are not part of the family you posted, they sure look the same in Spring. It will be weeks before I see them. We are having snow again tomorrow. Love the large leaves when fully developed. It is my "tropical" look for that part of the garden. Glad to visit again today. Jack

  2. Hi gardens at Waters East, Thanks for the kind comment. I used to have winter heliotrope Petasites fragrans in my garden, which is a close relative that has a very attractive marzipan scent and blooms in winter, but it became far too invasive.I really like the massive leaves of butterbur - the famous herbal herbalist John Gerard observed, in his herbal of 1597, that the leaves are ‘bigge and large inough to keepe a mans head from raine, and from the heate of the sunne’.

  3. Really enjoy your blog posts, Phil. Have been noticing masses and masses of Butterbur all along the riverbanks from behind Poplar Tree Garden Centre, Shincliffe and on up beyond Shincliffe Hall. Very very sandy banks, however, which are eroding quite dramatically in places. Curious plant.

  4. Hi Christina, Thanks for the kind comment. It does seem to be an exceptional year for this plant - maybe the cold weather held it back so that much more is flowering synchronously.........?