Ryan Drum

Island Herbs

P O Box 25, Waldron, WA 98297-0025

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PETASITES SPP (BUTTERBUR)
WILD CULTIVATION


Petasites spp, near relatives of Tussilago spp, are usually relatively easy to manage as wild-cultivated plants, whose leaves and rhizomes have several therapeutic uses (antispasmodic, anti-persistent dry cough, migraine headaches, asthmatic conditions, GI disturbances, some skin conditions etc).

Previously Petasites species were lumped with Tussilago species and the generic names used interchangeably. This can impede referencing butterbur in older literature.

Beginning in February, they produce showy composite flowers on erect stalks to 3 feet high which emerge 3-8 weeks prior to the very large leaves, 12-36” across in favorable locations. The very large Petasites japonica, a mild-tasting cultivar has leaves to 6 feet across.

The plant is sometimes called “son before father” in the vernacular. The large blooms provide early pollen and substantial nectar for wild bees.

The leaves, with long plump petioles, and the strikingly obvious flowering stalks emerge from subterranean rhizomes, the true stems, which usually remain buried throughout the life of the plant.

I have wild-cultivated Petasites palmatus, butterbur, for over 30 years in addition to harvesting wild patches of P. palmatus in the Cascade west slopes, the Olympic Penninsula, and along California Rt 1 from the Medocino Coast sections and along US RT 101 north from the Redwoods through Oregon, and around the Olympic Pennisula.

The plant seemed to grow most luxuriously on obviously freshly cut roadside banks and in road water runoff channels, usually with at least 40-60% shade.

I collected only the plump (1/2-3/4”) rhizomes by gently removing 2-4” of soil, usually water-logged heavy clay, to expose the polystratic interwoven jumble of rhizome stems up to lengths of 20 feet or more. The rhizomes are usually decay free and very brittle.

Petasites palmatus

Petasites palmatus
USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. 3: 531.

In the early days, 40 years ago, I did not see any Petasites spp. growing in the archipelago where I settled and still live. Since it was a lot of bother to travel offisland to harvest, I tried to find local sources for the herbs I used and harvested to sell. I would try to wild cultivate as many plants as I could. Failures included Devil’s Club, skunk cabbage, Mayapple, Goldenseal, Ginseng, Squaw vine, etc.

I planned to try Petasites if I could locate suitable habitat. I tried planting 4-6” long rhizome pieces in wet and shaded coniferous forests, but none survived more than two growing seasons. I decided that I would try and replicate the roadside conditions where I had seen and harvested the most butterbur rhizomes. Then, one fine February day, I saw the flowering stalks presenting in a small (300-400 sq.ft.) wet meadow; it was a monotypic patch of Petasites palmatus, about 200m from my cabin along an old shepherds’ trail and logging road, unused for decades.

A year later we had two small ponds dug below the cabin for irrigation and fire control.

The dozer dug out a lot of heavy gray clay which was used to make the two dams.

That clay and the bare site resembled the roadside conditions where I had observed Petasites thriving.

That autumn, after the Petasites leaves had withered, I dug a score of 4-6” Petasites rhizomes from the old trailside patch and planted them on one of the dams in roughly 2-ft. centers into the plant-free clay, each planting marked with a 2 ft cedar stake labeled butterbur.

The following spring about 8 stakes had little collapsed umbrella–looking small butterbur leaves emerging nearby. They grew modestly that first summer.

The next spring, 18 stakes had little butterbur plants, none produced blossoms. By 5 years, there was a thick jumble of underground rhizomes, and I harvested some for home use as cough suppressant, a tincture combined with live Grindelia bud tincture.

The rhizomes continued to spread down both sides of the dam, across the modest clay spillway, and up into the surrounding young, mostly deciduous forest (red alder, bigleaf maple, willow, elderberry). In subsequent years I have harvested up to 50# of fresh P. palmatus rhizomes every year.

Further extensive plantings survived and thrived on the other dam where a dense competitive upgrowth of Equisetum arvense developed which seems to limit the lateral spread of the butterbur. We planted 100 rhizome pieces at the wet end of a shallow declivity where we had established a small plum, pear, mulberry, dwarf cherry orchard at the upper end and along the margins of the declivity. There was already some red clover and a bit of bunch grass growing betwixt the trees. The red clover completely died out after 5-6 years and the bunch grass commandeered most of the orchard floor except the wettest end, where a few dozen modest P. palmatus plants persist, bloom, and try to spread into the nearby coniferous oldgrowth with little success. We do not harvest these plants.

Two days ago I saw where recent (10 yrs. ago) modest forest road grading had apparently dragged a bunch of P. palmatus rhizomes from the original patch down into a seasonal well-overflow wet area and they had thrived and produced hundreds of plants and blossoms. Hooray!

When we had goats for a decade, their path to free-range browsing crossed the upper dam where we had transplanted the first wild P. palmatus rhizomes.

The rhizomes remained buried just deep enough that the goats’ cloven hooves did not break the clay surface nor damage the subterranean stems. They seemed to not like to eat the butterbur; they did use the dam as a morning urination site once they had been milked and let out to go for the day untended; the lead goat, Madeline, urinated first and then the 6-9 others. This meant that the dam clay was seriously amended with urinary minerals. The rhizomes thrived and were especially pungent and plump, easy to harvest and tasted dreadfully awful. Perfect.

The goats not only selectively fed the butterbur grove, but also aggressively ate down all of the blackberries, salmon berries, thimble berries, young trees, and wild honeysuckle vines, basically weeding the extensive butterbur grove.

By two years after we no longer kept goats, the brush had completely overgrown the butterbur patches. My interns and sporadic students and assorted willing guests were asked to cut back and dig out the brush and stack it into a huge pile which was over an area where we first clear-dug all the butterbur rhizomes we could (always for an extant order); the pile was then ignited and more brush piled on until usually the complete grove was weed and brushless. A large ash pile remained for a few months before being dispersed by rain and occasional trampling. The nearby rhizomes aggressively grew into the shallow soil under the ash pile and produced big plump rhizomes within two years and for at least a decade longer if not dug for sale. The butterbur seemed to fancy the fresh supply of mineral nutrients from the burnt brush; I assume much of that mineral supply was sourced from the goats’ urine, and those minerals in turn had been browsed for 10 years from nearly 500 acres of open forest and rocky hillside meadows.

I was brought several rhizome sections ca 6” long from a thriving grove of P. japonica; I planted them in the swale and on one of the dams. None survived. They had been a bit desiccated prior to reaching me and being planted.

Fast Track Petasites Wild Cultivation Instructions:

Petasites Palmus Preprations

We used both tincture and syrup made from fresh P.palmatus rhizomes, usually harvested as needed or made from any excess harvested over what we needed for a sale of the fresh rhizomes.

Tincture: the fresh rhizomes were broken, NOT CUT, into smallest pieces and placed in quart canning jar, and 50% vodka was poured over them, 3:1= 3cups vodka for 1 cup rhizome bits. Lidded, and shaken for a few minutes and put on the warming shelf over the wood heater for a month, with shaking 1-x daily.

A fine white sediment begins to form after a bout a week and continues to build up, as much as ¼ inch on the bottom. This is mostly inulin, a complex starch, digestible only by those of us who have the appropriate intestinal flora, especially in the colon. Inulin is the dominant starch in Elecampane roots, where a thick white layer forms on the bottom of the macerating vessels. I believe this inulin is extremely important in the formation of cell surface cell identifiers protruding form all cells in the glycocalyx/aminoglycan layers. Here is where immune monitoring occurs and correct cell identifier molecules are essential. I believe adequate inulin helps to establish and maintain human immune rigor.

I leave the butterbur rhizome pieces in the menstrum until the tincture is all used.

Syrup: fresh rhizomes are placed in warm (80-90°F) honey for up to a month and used as needed. The rhizome bits do not always totally candy and may remain startlingly pungent.

Caution!

Petasites spp. may contain small amounts of pyrolizidine alkaloids particularly in the young leaves (and not in the mature leaves, flowers, rhizomes). Some hyper-cautious authors suggest using Petasites medicines for no more than 4 weeks continually. The dosage hazards are actually unknown and caution recommendations based on a minimal or non-existent data base. The millenia of satisfied human uses of Petasites spp suggest a well-earned GRAS designation for Petasites spp.

Some informative Petasites (Butterbur) references:

Culpepper, N. ca 1650. Culpepper’s Compleat Herbal. Pp.68-9
Grieve, Mrs. M. 1931. A Modern Herbal.Pp148-9
Moore, M. 1993. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Pp. 253-256
PDR For Herbal Medicines. 1998. 1st Ed. Pp 1020-1022
Schofield, J. 1989. Discovering Wild Plants. Pp194-7

Ryan will send Petasites palmatus rhizomes for $12.00 ( shipping) to those who think they have suitable transplanting, wild habitat. This plant is hardy to 80°F and down to 10°F, in moist damp places.

Ryan Drum, Waldron Island, WA
April 2010


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P O Box 25, Waldron, WA 98297-0025
Updated 03.07.2016

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