There is a patch of this plant growing beside the road known as ‘The Rocks’ which skirts an area on the edge of the Forest of Dean called Clearwell Meand. I saw it and mistakenly thought it was a ‘ratty’ bit of Butterbur, but on more detailed investigation it is in fact a closely related plant called Winter Heliotrope.
The Winter Heliotrope is in fact a plant which has its roots in North Africa, but now has its roots all over Europe. It is quite invasive so once it gets its roots in, it is very difficult to eradicate it. It is also quite competitive so tends to obliterate all other wild flowers. So if you see it growing somewhere and are admiring it for its beauty? and pleasant vanilla perfume then do not be tempted to take a bit and introduce it to your wild patch at the bottom of your garden because very soon your wild patch will only contain Winter Heliotrope and shortly your entire garden will be Winter Heliotrope.
In fact it is never a good idea to dig up wild flowers from one place and replant them else where and for many plants it may actually be illegal. If you really want to get something in your garden which is not already there then collect seed and do it that way. Better not to interfere at all.
It was first brought to GB in 1806 as a garden plant. It flowers in December and January/February so it adds a bit of interest during the winter months, also it smells of Vanilla. By 1835 it had established itself in the wild and is now quite common across southern UK. Its poor tolerance of low temperatures has restricted its spread into northern Britain, though it might well start to appear further north as temperatures warm up. Only male plants are found in the UK so it can only spread asexually, ie by gradually growing through an area, or by a piece of the plant being up rooted and then transported to a new location, most likely by man but just possibly by large animals, like boar or deer.
The flowers are similar in colour and shape although the butterbur has a more dense and compact head and of course they are both shade plants and flower early in the year. It is a good source of nectar so is quite beneficial to bees in early Spring. Winter heliotrope is as you might expect not terribly tolerant of frost as it originates from warmer parts of the world but it quickly recovers after a knock back.
This post is largely a copy of one I did some years ago in another blog about Poitou-Charentes as this plant also grows in that part of France. Also, a special thanks go to A Bassiti who originally supplied the photos for this post and who also produces a very good blog about her garden in Charente-Maritime and all things associated with it. The blog is called A French Garden, which is quite a good name as that is what its about.
I will soon get round to taking some of my own photos of this plant. OK I have now done that and below is a slide show of some I took recently. These are growing right beside the River Wye as you can see and are between the river and the ruins of Llancut church. There are also large numbers near bye on the road from St Brivaels towards Tutshill.
To check out other wildflowers found in the woods of the Wye valley and Ninewells wood click Woodland Wildflowers of the Wye valley and Monmouthshire.