butterbur defined in 1913 yearbutterbur - Butterbur (Petasites vulgaris);
butterbur - The wind blew chill in the March days over the boggy meadow. A little stream made its way sluggishly through the swampiness. Though in the spinney adjacent some of the trees were flowering after their rather sad and subdued fashion, there was, as yet, little hint of spring gaiety to be seen around. Later the meadow would be a garden of beautiful flowers, but not yet, for the spring was still in its infancy. On the wet earth by the brook-side, however, remarkable cone-like structures of a pinkish flesh colour were rising - "Boghorns" the country folk aptly term them - which gave a touch of warmth to the lush greenness, but which in their hue, bareness, and general unlikeness to ordinary flowers almost suggested some big fungus. It was the Butterbur, one of the earliest of spring flowers, a plant that haunts wet ditches and brooksides, but which, in spite of its frequency in Britain, is yet curiously unfamiliar to the generality of people. Perhaps its colour, so like the sandy soil that it prefers, shields it a little from observation, perhaps the fact that it grows in very damp quarters that one avoids at that season makes it less known.
After the fashion of its near relative, the coltsfoot, it also divides the cycle of its life into two very distinct episodes, and, "putting the cart before the horse," as we are apt to say, produces its flowers before its leaves. Its creeping, underground stem provides, not merely one kind of shoot, but two, namely, leafless flower-shoots and flowerless leaf-shoots, and the flower-shoots awake and finish their day in the spring before the summer calls the leaf-shoots into maturity. In the "Boghorns," then, we have episode number one. A very fine specimen of a "Boghorn" may be as much as a foot high, but as a rule the growth is nearer half this measurement. Each has a thick, fleshy, erect axis, and along this arise on very short stalks a number of cup-shaped heads of flowers, the cup being but slightly hollowed out. There may be fifty or more of these flower-heads on each, and each head may itself consist of some fifty florets. Below the flower-clusters a few colourless bracts cling to the axis.
Now, though, perhaps, a keen observer would notice that some of the axes were shorter and rather more loosely set with flower-heads than others, and, moreover, that these same flower-heads were somewhat small in comparison with those in the denser cones, still the superficial divergences are hardly such as to suggest fundamental differences in nature. Yet the Butterbur is known to botanists as a dioecious plant; that is, it has its male flowers all on one plant, its female flowers all on another, and here the looser, shorter clusters of smaller heads represent the male element, and the larger heads and denser, longer spikes represent the female. Occasionally there is a slight interchange between the sexes, and a few female flowers mingle with the males, and a few males with the females, but not as a rule. The florets individually are very small and a good hand lens is necessary if one would accurately make out their structure.
The male florets individually consist of a calyx represented by a few scanty hairs; a pink corolla as a small tube below, but expanding into a bell-shape with five lobes; magenta-headed stamens - five - their anthers all joined in a ring; and a seedless ovary with a style, but minus the stigmas necessary for the reception of pollen to complete its structure. Abundant honey lies in the petal tube. The course of events is the same as in many other members of the Compositæ family - the anthers burst inwards and the pollen is swept out of their ring by the growth of the style, and lies in a mass on top.
The female florets are not supplied with honey, neither have they any stamens, not even useless remains of any; their corolla is merely a thread-like tube, which contains the style, furnished in this case with the necessary stigma, while the calyx is formed of numerous hairs. In both florets the ovary is outside and below the petals. It is stated that, as a rule, the Butterbur is fertilised by small flies and creeping insects to whom its flesh-like hue particularly appeals; moreover, its low and unprotected situation on the ground obviously encourages their perambulations over its surface. But the Butterbur in the boggy meadow with which we started was alive with bees on that sunny, if cold, March morning, and they flew from head to head with manifest eagerness, thus bridging the gap between male and female colonies.
Each female floret produces a single seed which carries the calyx crown or "pappus" of white hairs, so that it is easily caught and carried by the wind. While the flowers are going through their career a few small leaves may occasionally push up by their side, but it is not till the flowering is over that the Butterbur really enters upon the second and no less remarkable stage in its life cycle. "Lagwort" it is sometimes called for this reason, but once the leaf-shoots make a start they grow with tropical luxuriance and the great leaves, one to each main stem, may become even a yard in diameter, their smooth, dark green, delicate tissue stretching unbroken from rib to rib. The stalk is at one side, with the blade of the leaf almost at right angles to it; and, hence, the ribs that uphold the blade, radiating from the point of attachment of the blade on the girder principle, must needs be thick, strong and prominent. To these enormous leaves the plant owes several of its synonyms. Thus it is "Bog Rhubarb," "Poison Rhubarb," and "Umbrella Plant," also "Flapperdock," and its corruption "Blatterdock." They also account for its generic name Petasites - petasos being the Greek word for the felt hats worn by shepherds and agriculturists - because they are large enough to form hats. The broad cap of Mercury is this same petasos. The English country equivalent is "Capdockin," a name sometimes heard. No other vegetation can live where these leaves grow; they exclude light and air to a fatal extent from all beneath. Indeed, in themselves they are, as has been pointed out, "our most remarkable example of those (leaves) adapted to situations in which the supply of water is considerable, the air moist, and the light not too strong."
The root of the Butterbur probably plays a greater part than the feather-crowned seeds in propagating the plant, for it is the most vigorous of creepers. One observer relates that a little piece of root, two inches long and the thickness of one's finger, was planted, and after only eighteen months was examined, when it was found that it had formed many shoots six feet long which had penetrated to a depth of two feet, while from a mere nothing its weight had become eight pounds. It has a black skin, and is full of a resinous and bitter juice.
A common name of the plant, "Pestilence Wort," recalls the fact that in the evil days of the plague the herbalists prescribed it as a specific, for "Butterburre dried and made into powder and then dronken is a souveraine medicine against the Plague and Pestilent fevers, because it provoketh sweate and for that cause it driveth from the harte all venim and evill heate." Less than a hundred years ago it was stated that during an epidemic of a peculiarly virulent fever, the English died wholesale because they bled themselves, while the Germans recovered and lived by making use of Butterbur. They sliced the roots and added boiling water; when cold they poured off the liquor and put into it sugar and mountain wine, and then drank a quarter of a pint every fourth hour, with the result, we are told, that their spirits were raised, their anguish and depression passed, and they speedily recovered health. After a further eulogy the writer of "The Universal Herball," concludes, "I could say much on this subject, but it would be an unnecessary task to prove the sun gives light; and it is no less certain that this root is the best known remedy for putrid and pestilential fevers." And yet to-day it does not even find mention in our pharmacopoeia!
As for the name Butterbur, several centuries ago it was suggested that it arose because housewives wrapped their butter in it in hot weather. Dr. Pryor, however, thinks that it is due to a confusion of the French bourre, whence "bur" in burdock, with the French beurre - butter, but when we recall how often butter and cream cheese are to-day wrapped in the very similar rhubarb leaf, the earlier and simpler explanation will probably be better accepted.
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