Phylum: Magnoliophyta - Class: Equisetopsida - Order: Asterales - Family: Asteraceae
This distinctive spring wildflower often forms dense patches of colour on shaded banks, woodland edges and disturbed roadside verges. The flowers appear when the leaves are relatively small, and as spring approaches the flowers decay but the leaves persist for many months.
The heart-shaped leaves, which have light-grey and distinctly hairy undersides, usually emerge in autumn and grow to 20-50cm across. (This plant is a close relative of Coltsfoot, which has very similar leaves.) Flowering spikes emerge from the ground in November and reach a typical height of 30cm. The white to pink flowers usually persist through to the end of January or the middle of February.
Most often seen in damp, shaded places such as wet meadows, damp woodlands, river banks and ditches, Winter Heliotrope is particularly conspicuous when it colonises disturbed roadside verges, where it tends to crowd out other flowering plants.
Petasites fragrans is native to southern Europe and North Africa, but it has become naturalised in Britain (although scarce in northern Scotland) and in Ireland, where it is locally a common sight on disturbed roadside verges. This is a dioecious species, and RHS states that only male plants occur in Britain, so I think they must all be genetically identical clones.
In Britain and Ireland Winter Heliotrope produces its flowers from November to February.
Winter Heliotrope has a pleasant vanilla-like fragrance (although some say it smells more like cherry pie!), but because it tends to be invasive in areas of disturbed soil it is not popular with most gardeners. The leaves persist through spring, summer and autumn and so they shade the soil and help to keep it moist.
The Winter Heliotrope specimens shown on this page were photographed in Wales during December and January.
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