The butterbur (Petasites hybridus (L.) Gaertn.) is sometimes also known as “pestilence wort” due to its use in the Middle Ages to combat the plague. The strong-smelling essential oils were supposed to drive away the disease. We know today that butterbur is not effective against the plague, but that it has other useful effects. It is used as a remedy for allergic rhinitis caused by pollen allergy (hay fever). The plant also contains what are called petasins which have an anti-inflammatory effect and relieve cramp-like disorders.
Occurrence and distribution of butterbur
The red or common butterbur is also called “brook butterbur” and belongs to the Compositae family just like the well-known native daisies or the dandelion. The perennial, herbaceous plant is widespread throughout Europe and large parts of Asia.
Butterbur is found on damp or temporarily flooded soils. It needs not only wet soil to grow successfully but also high humidity. This is why it often grows at the edge of streams or rivers, on alluvial sandbanks or on the muddy banks of ponds. Biologists and ecologists value butterbur because its extensive roots and rhizomes help to strengthen and stabilise the banks of the lakes and streams etc. on which it grows. It often forms a large stand and can overgrow entire areas.
This medicinal plant was once widespread in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Today, however, it is becoming increasingly rare. Newly introduced species such as the very fast-growing Japanese knotweed are displacing butterbur to an increasing degree.
Appearance of butterbur
Petasites hybridus flowers early in the year, with the flowers appearing between March and May. These are located in several groups on a rust-red coloured cob. The reddish scaled cob increases in height until the white to pink flowers open fully as racemose flowerheads up to 40 centimetres long.
Only after the flower has faded do large heart-shaped leaves form which can be up to 60 centimetres in diameter. Butterbur can grow up to 1.5 metres high in total. The leaves emerge directly from the rhizome which grows sometimes along the surface of the soil and sometimes underground. The height of the plant results from the very long and strong leaf stalk. Both the latter and the undersides of the leaves are covered with greyish white felt-like hairs. This appearance means that the plant is sometimes also called false coltsfoot.
History and tradition of butterbur
There are already references to the use of butterbur in prehistoric times. In the 1st century AD the Greek physician Dioscorides called the plant "petasos" which means something like “rain hat”. The name refers to the huge leaves which could also be used as rain protection. In many areas the plant is still called “hat plant” today.
It owes its German name (Pestwurz) to its use in the Middle Ages as a protection against the plague. The plant itself and the smoke from its burnt root smelled unpleasant. The butterbur was therefore used as a fumigant to protect against the plague. As you can imagine, unfortunately with little success.
Ingredients and effect of butterbur
Extracts from the leaves and root of the plant have antispasmodic (spasmolytic), analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic effects. Certain of its ingredients, the petasins, are responsible for these effects. Petasins include the substances petasin, isopetasin and neopetasin. Among other properties, the petasins inhibit the production of certain inflammatory messengers which diminish the symptoms in hay fever.
Other ingredients are essential oils, flavonoids, bitter substances and mucilage. The plant also contains pyrrolizine alkaloids (PA) which have the effect of discouraging animals from eating the plant. The degradation products of PAs can also be harmful to humans, causing liver damage in particular. Therefore, the preparation of infusions from recently picked or dried plants is strongly discouraged because of the PA content. Standardised extracts, on the other hand, are obtained from special butterbur varieties that contain little PA. In addition, the plant extracts for use in medicinal products are very carefully processed to remove the residual PAs and are strictly controlled.
Butterbur as a medicinal product
Butterbur has many different applications. Extracts from butterbur leaves are used to mitigate the symptoms of hay fever. The extracts from the root of the plant, on the other hand, have an antispasmodic effect, among other things on disorders of the digestive organs.
Butterbur preparations against hay fever
Preparations containing an extract of butterbur leaves offer a herbal anti-allergic treatment. These can relieve symptoms such as allergic rhinitis with a runny or blocked nose, red and itchy eyes or irritation in the throat.
Extracts from the butterbur root have an antispasmodic effect on the smooth muscles. They are therefore used in remedies for cramps in the gastrointestinal tract. These can be triggered either by incorrect eating habits or also by stress.
This is general information. For individual advice, please contact a specialist.