A few days ago I wrote about my Heritage Seed Library order, an early Christmas present. Another Christmas present from the Plant Kingdom is one I bought for myself back in the summer, a Winter Heliotrope plant. It is now in flower, in time for Christmas.
Winter Heliotrope, Petasites fragrans, is a member of the Daisy Family, the Asteraceae, and a close relative of Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, which I wrote about back in March 2012. (It is sometimes known as Sweet-scented Coltsfoot or Sweet Colt’s-foot.)
It has kidney-shaped, bright green leaves, which are hairless above and hairy on their undersides. They look a bit like Coltsfoot or Butterbur leaves but are shinier and greener than those of Coltsfoot, without the scalloped edges, and are smaller and rounder than Butterbur leaves.
The plant can be found in hedge banks and by roadsides and on waste ground. It prefers wetter ground, and often grows by streams. I have usually found it growing close to habitation and this is not surprising, as it is not a British native but has escaped from gardens. It was introduced in the early 19th Century from the shores of the Mediterranean. It is native to south-western and south-eastern Europe and North Africa but now grows through much of lowland Britain, though it is scarcer in Scotland. Good sites to see it locally include the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich and to the west of Norwich, not far from Runhall Church.
In the open ground Winter Heliotrope can be invasive, as it spreads by branching underground stems (rather like Coltsfoot) and it can form large patches, where its leaves shade out other plants. Mine is in a pot and I don’t intend to let it escape, though since I bought it the plant has already reached the edges of the pot in a bid for freedom.
It is the flowers that make the Winter Heliotrope (see the Wildflower Finder website for some lovely photographs). They are subtly pretty – in pale pink clusters on the end of short spikes. Only male flowers are produced in the British Isles, so the plant cannot spread by seed.
The fact that the plant is in flower in the depths of winter is one reason why I love this plant but the main reason is the delicious vanilla scent of the flowers. On Christmas morning I will venture outside to my plant and take a long, deep sniff.