The Latin name for butterbur (Petasites hybridus) goes back to its use as a remedy for curing the plague during the Middle Ages. The pungent essential oils were thought to fight the disease. Today we know that it does not cure the plague, but studies have demonstrated its other effects. It is used to treat allergic rhinitis in people who are allergic to pollen (hay fever). It contains what are known as petasines, which have an anti-inflammatory effect and relieve cramp-like symptoms. The extracts from the butterbur root have also been studied to see how they might prevent migraines.
Where is butterbur found?
Red or common butterbur (Petasites hybridus) belongs to the sunflower family just like the well-known native daisy or dandelion. This perennial herbaceous plant is found all across Europe and much of Asia.
Butterbur grows in soils that are moist or that flood periodically. To grow, it needs both damp soil and high humidity, which is why it often grows along riverbanks, on alluvial sand banks or in marshy areas.
The medicinal plant used to be very common in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Today it is becoming increasingly rare, however. New invasive species, such as the very fast-growing Japanese knotweed, are displacing it.
Appearance and botanical properties of ordinary butterbur
Petasites hybridus is an early bloomer, with its flowers appearing between March and May. They form in clusters on a rust-coloured spadix. The reddish, scaled spadix grows higher and higher until the white or pinkish flowers open to form grape-like spadices that can be up to 40 centimetres long.
The large, heart-shaped leaves form once the blooming stage is complete and can have a diameter of up to 60 centimetres. Butterbur can grow to a height of up to 1.5 metres, and the leaves sprout directly from the ground-creeping, partially subterranean rhizome.
The history of butterbur
There is evidence that butterbur was used as far back as prehistoric times. In the first century AD, the Greek physician Dioscorides referred to it as “petasos”, which roughly translates to “rain hat”. The name refers to the giant leaves, which were also sometimes used for protection against the rain. In some areas of the German-speaking world, the plant is still referred to as Hutpflanze (“hat plant”).
The German names Pestwurz (“plague root”) and Pestilenzkraut (“pestilence herb”) go back to the plant’s use during the Middle Ages, when the naturally unpleasant odour from the plant itself and the smoke from burning its roots were used to “smoke out” the plague – much in vain, as one might expect.
Effects of and active agents in Petasites hybridus
Extracts from the leaves and roots of the plant have cramp-relieving (spasmolytic) and pain-relieving (analgesic) effects. They also have anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties thanks to certain substances they contain known as petasines. These include petasine, isopetasine and neopetasine. Petasines inhibit the production of certain inflammatory messengers, which explains why they have an effect on hay fever.
The plant also contains essential oils, flavonoids, amaroids and mucilage. It also contains carcinogenic and liver-damaging pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). Because of the PA content, people are warned against drinking tea made from the fresh or dried plants. There are standard-regulated extracts from special types of butterbur containing very few PAs, however. The residual PAs are additionally separated from the plant extracts through a complex, complete purification process, and the product undergoes strict testing before it can be used in medicinal products. This includes extract Ze 339.
How is butterbur used?
Studies have shown that butterbur has a wide range of applications. Extracts from the leaves of the plant are used to treat hay fever symptoms. The root extracts of the medicinal plant help relieve cramps that accompany problems with the genitourinary tract and digestive system, for example.
Hay fever relief with products containing butterbur
Most people who suffer from hay fever have tried a whole range of tablets, but many medications, such as antihistamines, cause drowsiness. Products containing an extract from butterbur leaves offer a purely botanical way to relieve allergies.
Headaches and migraines
Clinical studies have provided the first evidence that medicinals containing butterbur may also help to relieve tension headaches and prevent migraines. The exact mechanism of action has not been studied yet. Researchers believe that an anti-inflammatory effect and normalisation of blood circulation are partly responsible.
Extracts from butterbur root have an antispasmodic effect on the smooth muscles. They are used to treat cramps in the urinary tract and painful cramping in the digestive tract. Products for treating constipation sometimes contain the plant extract because of its calming effect and because it promotes digestion and helps relieve cramps.
Please note: Herbal remedies may also have interactions and side effects. Therefore, please consult your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions.