Fragrant flower or invasive thug?

We’d been walking for twenty minutes or so with plenty to see:  a wooded garden with a drift of early snowdrops scattered across the grass like confetti, the winter sunshine percolating through the trees creating mosaics of light and shade, running water a constant companion.  Then suddenly, something new captured my attention but I couldn’t immediately identify what it was.  You know how it is when you hear a fragment of a well-known piece of music but can’t place it; only this wasn’t music.  Gradually, though, I became conscious of a low level odour permeating the air by the path. I am sure there had been other smells as we walked, such as rotting leaves and wet mud, but this was entirely unexpected: a sweet, fragrant odour that stopped me in my tracks.

It was the day after Christmas and we decided to walk the riverside path linking the village of Uplyme in the far east of Devon to the seaside town of Lyme Regis just across the border in Dorset.  This was the most rural section of the walk.  One side of the path was bordered by skeletal trees and a damp, woodland bank. Hart’s tongue ferns grew prolifically, their leaves spilling out across the soil, octopus-like.  On the other side of the path, the ground fell away steeply to the river Lym below.

But the ferns did not have it all their own way and a small section of the bank was occupied instead by heart-shaped, bright green, fleshy leaves.  Floating above the leaves, on thick stems, were the flowers, daisy-like brushes of pale petals gathered together and swept upwards.  Each slightly hairy stem carried several of these chunky flower heads. This was winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans).

I bent down to smell the flowers and was greeted by a sweet cloying fragrance that spoke to me of almonds and resurrected distant memories of amaretto liqueur; this was the source of my arresting sensory experience.   Although I smelt almonds, it turns out that there is some disagreement about the exact odour of winter heliotrope.  Perhaps it is the complexity of the smell; there was indeed an additional hard edge to the `fragrance that I couldn’t place, and some say the flowers smell of almonds, others vanilla, some even licorice and I began to doubt my response.

Back home, I looked for another patch of the plant to test my nose.  Finding the plant wasn’t a problem; there is a lot of winter heliotrope about at present in south Devon.  Much of it, however, grows by busy roads and it took me a while to find some that I could smell safely.  I finally struck lucky by the coast path above the beach at South Milton Sands.  Here I found drifts of winter heliotrope, some in shade and some in sunshine on the cliff top.  The flower heads trembled in the breeze and the late afternoon sun highlighted the delicate colours of the flowers, some pale lilac, others tinged dark pink.  Sometimes, the sea breeze carried traces of that low level woodland odour.

But what was the smell of the flowers in this seaside location?  I took first sniff and smelt almonds again so my earlier response had been correct.  Next Hazel tried without knowing my experience and she said lilac.   It would be interesting to know what others sense when they smell winter heliotrope.

Many people, however, have an entirely different reaction to winter heliotrope, they hate it!  They regard the plant as an introduced, invasive thug, taking over landscapes and eliminating native plants like a triffid destroying everything in its path.   I share these concerns, but I have to admit to having a soft spot for winter heliotrope.   It brightens up the sparse winter landscape and provides welcome forage for early insects.  South Devon, with its mild climate, supports colonies of winter bumblebees and they need forage throughout the season.  Winter heliotrope provides some of that food and last week I watched winter bumblebees foraging on the flowers above the sea in Torquay.

 

 

Winter heliotrope and bumblebee queen

Winter heliotrope with bumblebee queen (B.terrestris)

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Philip Strange is a science and nature writer living in the south west of the UK. His work may be read at: https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/ Follow him on Twitter @PhilipsWriting

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