Today we went out with Francesca, manager of the Vignamaggio gardens, to explore the coolest part of the estate, in search of the petasites or butterbur, a perennial plant of the Asteracaea family.
It is easy to come across these enormous herbaceous plants alongside Greve’s tributaries. They can be spotted by their huge hat-like leaves that look like they were designed for protection from the sun on scorching hot summer days.
Its name comes from the Greek word Petasos, that actually means hat, and was chosen by the Greek botanist Dioscoride, who lived in Nerone’s time and is mentioned in one of the canticles in Dante’s Inferno.
The petasites is an extremely common plant, known since ancient Roman times. While not familiar to many nowadays, it still grows all over Italy where it is known by different names: cappellaccio, farfaraccio or cavolaccio.
In ancient times, the petasites were used as umbrellas and for wrapping and storing food like butter (hence its common English name) or as a disposable organic plate for serving meals.
It thrives in a cool environment, out of the sun, and prefers dappled or full shade (perfect under tree canopies). Its flowers are a creamy white, sometimes violet or purple, and its edible root can be made into a pesto similar to the one with Jerusalem artichoke.
It is a medicinal plant, that belongs to the same family as chamomile and, like chamomile, contains analgesic properties.
As with tilia and hawthorn, the hypotensive properties of the petasites work on the autonomic nervous system, acting as a natural antihypertensive.
The petasites leaf covering the heads of forest spirits is often depicted in paintings and sculptures. Wearing it on their heads in this way is symbolic of nature’s communication of divine messages and energy with us.
Characteristics of the plant
The plant stems from horizontal, creeping, underground rhizomes. It requires moist, cool, slightly acidic soil and tolerates temperatures of between -10 °C and 35 °C. A cluster of flowers, 30 to 100 cm high, emerges from the rhizome and only when flowering is over do the characteristic leaves appear. Once they have been pollinated by bees, the flowers produce a haired fruit that is dispersed by the wind.