Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans)
Like most flower-fans I pay excessive attention to the first flowers of the year. We always notice these harbingers. (The same distortion occurs among British people in general: they recognize snowdrops, daffs, primroses and bluebells but can't name anything that flowers later on.)
I feel a bit rueful about my comparative neglect of the plants who crowd into midsummer, when there's so many kinds that we working folk are lucky even to note them, never mind write about them. But it's an intrinsic part of the acutely sweet character of, let's say, Grass Vetchling, to be nearly always missed out on.
Anyway I'm still grateful - no, I'm more than grateful, I'm delighted - for the chance to be seasonably excessive about winter heliotrope, a plant introduced from North Africa and seen here flowering in the very un-African January of Weston-super-Mare. [nb I also saw these plants in bloom on Jan 1st 2011, after an unusually cold December]
Like other butterburs, it is dioecious and there is an odd discrepancy between the distribution of the male and female plants. Only the male plant is known here. Likewise our common native butterbur: the male plant is found throughout England but the female plant is seen only in the north. I don't fully understand how such plants get distributed outside their heartland: mainly by human activity I suppose, plus I imagine they regenerate tenaciously from small fragments.
The other curious thing about the plant, aside from its own slight charms (which include a vanilla-like scent), is the name "heliotrope". This ought to refer to heliotropism, i.e. movement towards the sun; but that's what nearly all plants do. Doubtless it's remarkably evinced in the twisting cymes of the true heliotrope (turnsole), a small white-flowered borage-like plant of the Mediterranean, but heliotropism doesn't seem to be notable in Petasites, which is happy to bloom stolidly in shade. Most likely the transference of the pretty name is down to a superficial visual resemblance between the two species.
"Heliotrope" is too good a word to resist. Among many other things it's the name of a kind of decorative stone (a bloodstone), classically dark green with mysterious flecks of red; the stone's name is owed to certain ancient theories about how the sun gets into the stone and produces these flecks.
Heliotrope is also the name for a vivid purple colour; this use is fairly modern (1882) and it refers to the intense colour of the garden heliotrope, which is a relative of the original turnsole. Coincidentally, back in the Renaissance, the turnsole was used to make food colouring; it turned acid foods red and alkaline foods blue, like litmus paper.
Slime as art, in Weston woods. (In all probability, this was Velvet Shank.)
The derelict roof-line of the Royal Pier Hotel in Weston-Super-Mare (plus Brean Down in the distance).