Winter Heliotrope (Petasites pyrenaicus), a modest aster from the damper corners of Mediterranean Europe.
Introduced to Britain at the beginning of the 19th c., by the 1830s the plant had escaped from the rural estates where it was planted and naturalised widely across the UK and Ireland. Known then alongside other Petasites species and hybrids by the common names ‘butter-bur’ and ‘bog rhubarb,’ the plant was of course brought here in the invasion. However, it is unlisted in early nursery catalogues at Melbourne; perhaps the plant was initially more of a personal import, or its adoption in this country reflected a Federation-era change of taste (riding the coattails of the larger Petasites japonicus?)
Of the classic Petasites, the Australasian’s garden columnists would write in 1913 and 1920: ‘deliciously scented,’ making ‘a perfect bouquet,’ with ‘bold, handsome leaves… prized for indoor decoration;’ but also a plant that ”must be carefully watched, for it grows rapidly, and will soon spread as a weed’.
First recorded in Victoria in 1928 on wet meadows and riversides at Bungaree outside of Ballarat, in 1960 Winter Heliotrope was collected in almost seaside conditions at Taroona in Tasmania; it is also established in NZ. Back in Victoria, in the 1980s and 1990s the species was collected on roadsides above Fern Tree Gully and at Kallista, first glimpses of an eventual spread throughout the Dandenongs.
Today the plant can be found in small colonies spreading from rhizomes on damp roadsides and gullies across the ranges. Its flower stalks, smelling sweetly of anise and cherry pie, are a winter treat if you happen to find them on a dry morning. Winter Heliotrope is one of the many species which have had a part in ‘cottage gardening’ the Dandenong ranges, in which a stable of exotic plants have been promoted to roadside and creekside both through intentional planting decisions and the incidental transmission of root stock in globs of mud stuck to vehicles.