Trying to keep safe our rare white treasure

The upper Calder Valley's rare White Butterbur
The upper Calder Valley's rare White Butterbur

One of the rarest flowers to look out for in Calderdale is the White Butterbur. It only grows in three places that I know of from the records.

The usual Butterbur has pinkish-buff-with-white flowers and is found in many places along riverbanks and canals, including in the upper Calder Valley. They are known the world over among botanists as Petasites alba (our rare, white one) and Petasites hybridus, the Butterbur.

The Butterbur has large rhubarb-like leaves in summer, and has been known as wild rhubarb, but no part of it is edible as far as I know. The ”butter” in its name is said to come from an old use for its large, plain leaves which was to wrap butter. Truly green packaging!

An interesting thing about this family is that individual plants, which can spread by underground rhizomes over a wide area, are either male or female. I’ve tried and failed to tell the males from the females by looking at the flowers. Apparently the female flower-spikes, as they produce seeds, lengthen whereas the males don’t. It is likely that our colony of White Butterbur is all either male or female.

The plant is assumed to be an escape or an outcast from gardens. Although the colony in the Hebden area is high up in a wood in one of the well walked cloughs, not near any existing gardens. The other general areas it is recorded from at single small sites are Elland and Sowerby Bridge.

The flowers of both plants appear early in spring, before the leaves expand to their full width. My photograph of the white one was taken last spring on March 6. I came across it unexpectedly as I took a walk. Frank Murgatroyd, who wrote the Flora of the Halifax Parish had seen it in exactly the place I described to him, but hadn’t heard about it before he wrote his book.

Incidentally the “Halifax Parish” is used to encompass the whole of Calderdale. I won’t say exactly where the plant is, in case anybody living close by treasures it and fears that gardeners may take bits home until there is nothing left.

This has happened with rare plants in some parts of the country. The Lady’s Slipper Orchid in the Dales for instance was made extinct by people digging it up, though this is now being re-introduced from garden stock with stringent security measures in place.

You wouldn’t think that in this day and age there would be people so unthinking as to do this.

There are even grown men who steal wild birds’ eggs from nests like boys did in the early 20th century to make decorative collections. They may dignify it with the name of Oology, but it’s really trophy-hunting. A 55-year-old man was recently convicted of it in Wakefield. He got a conditional discharge as a first offence and had to pay £85 costs.