For THE BIGGEST Leaves, Grow Petasites japonicus, Japanese Butterbur

Since living in England, I’ve wanted to grow Gunnera. The huge leaved plants are often found planted next to bucolic ponds or in other dramatic settings at all the famous gardens across the UK. They are otherworldly. Gunnera’s GIANT leaves can make full-sized adults feel like they have fallen into Alice’s Wonderland. Unfortunately, Gunnera will not survive in New England, so with disappointment, I gave up on the idea of an oversized garden to make us feel enclosed and ensconced in a beautiful lush plant world – until I discovered Petasites japonicus (Japanese sweet coltsfoot or butterbur).

Butterbur – The Inspiration:

Around 2010, I spotted Butterbur on Deborah Silver’s Blog Dirt Simple (which is still great and always worth a visit) — she was talking about Butterbur (Petasites hybridus), which is actually a native of Massachusetts (where I live) and Michigan (where Deb lives).  

She has it planted in her own garden (see below), where its leaves are big and covetous.

A lush garden corner with large, broad-leaved Japanese Petasites hybridus plants sits next to a brick and stucco house. The garden includes a hedge and various leafy green plants, blending well with the quaint, rustic architecture of the house. The ground is paved with grey and red tiles.

Deb Silver’s Butterbur and Boxwood

Planted with smaller leved plants in front of the house, there giant plants with giant leaves give so much textural contrast that no flowers are required to keep the view interesting. image from Dirt Simple.

Butterburr is a plant that can give you ‘vegetation disorientation’. (I know this sounds so legitimately clinical, but we just made it up. I define it as plants or wildlife, so it’s weird you can’t orientate yourself.)

My husband and I encountered butterbur in the wild on a remote island in Sweden, and it was disorienting. We thought they were strange giant wild rhubarb. Combined with the giant oily black slugs, we could have just as easily been delivered to that island by a spaceship rather than a quaint ferry.

A serene outdoor scene featuring large, lush green leaves of petasites japonicus in the foreground. The background contains tall trees, partially shrouded in a light fog, with a grassy area in between. The corner of a dark-colored building is visible on the left.
The lush leaves of petasites japonicus giganteus in my garden. They are perfect height to sit just below our picture window and provide a visual frame for the view of our back garden from inside the house. You can see that the large leaves emerge even before the oak trees are fully leafed out. image by rochelle greayer.

Before I acquired the Japanese variety of butterbur, I actually found some of the native variety in a friend’s garden. There, it was growing in a boggy area (it is also commonly called bog rhubarb). My friend was hesitant to pass it along since it was quite aggressive in this rich, wet environment.

It seems that no matter which variety you choose for your garden, This is your warning – that it can be aggressive – plan and plant accordingly. A bamboo grower suggested that I try a mulch-filled trench (that can be seasonally dredged). I’ve opted instead to use natural barriers (like rock walls, driveways, foundations, patios and lawns. As they encroach on the grass, I just mow them down – so far, so good. It has been a couple of years now – and so far, so good – but update if conditions change.

Butterbur (*Petasites*): A Garden Overview

Butterbur, known botanically as *Petasites*, is a fascinating plant with a rich history, various uses, and a unique presence in the garden. Here’s an overview so you can talk intelligently about it when your neighbors inevitably ask you about it.

Close-up of a petasites japonicus flower head showing multiple clusters of deep red buds with tiny, pale pink tips. The texture and pattern of the buds are intricate, resembling small, tightly packed segments. The background is blurred, putting focus on the flower.
An upclose shot of the early spring butterbur flowers. They are not particularly attractive (this shot makes they seem prettier) – more like extraterrestrials emerging from the barely thawed ground. Image by Petasites hybridus – Groot hoefblad, Butterbur AnneTanne.
Here is another shot that makes the late winter butterbur flowers seem more attractive than I think they really are. These are finer and more delicate than the ones in my garden, but you get an idea of how they might look and what else is blooming at the same time – which is not much. When else have I ever listed snowdrops as a companion plant? image By Momoko

But the native and the Japanese butterbur plants emerge like strange extraterrestrial plants in the very early spring. These late winter flower buds have clusters of flowers that look a little like fuzzy native asters when they open.  These blooms will quickly die back, and then the real show begins.  Huge leaves will spring forth (seemingly overnight) in wet soil, and the giant butterbur plant will be the greenest thing in your landscape, arriving before most woody plants have a full set of leaves. 

Lore and History of Petasites

Butterbur has been around for centuries and is often associated with medicinal uses. The ancient Greeks and Romans used butterbur leaves to wrap butter, keeping it cool and fresh—hence the name.

During the Middle Ages, it was used to treat plague and fever, earning it a reputation as a plant with healing powers. In traditional herbal medicine, butterbur is known for its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties.  

I’ve never experimented with it medicinally, and I offer no advice, but if you grow the plant, you will likely have plenty if you like to experiment with home remedies. 

In Japan, the young shoots of Petasites japonicus, which are called fuki, are used in various dishes. I need to research this a bit more – I have plenty that I can harvest…

A person peeks out from beneath large, overlapping Petasites japonicus leaves in a dense forest setting. The foliage dominates the scene, with the individual partially hidden and only visible from the shoulders up.
A sense of scale – i.safiullin (a full grown man) hides amongst petasites hybridus. (image by i.safiullin)

The Varieties of Butterbur worth growing:

There are three main varieties of Petasites available to US gardeners.

Petasites hybridus

Petasites hybridus (Common Butterbur) is known for its large, rhubarb-like leaves and pinkish flowers that bloom before the leaves emerge.  (this plant is native to some areas of North America)

Petasites japonicus giganteus (Japanese Butterbur)

Petasites japonicus (Japanese Butterbur) features enormous leaves that can reach up to 3 feet across and produce short-lived creamy-white flowers on pale green stems in early spring.  (this is what I have

Petasites frigidus

Petasites frigidus (Western Coltsfoot and var palmatus which is known as Arctic sweet coltsfoot) has smaller leaves compared to other varieties, often found in cooler climates (even known to grow in the arctic regions). This perennial herb can grow up to 20 inches tall and has woolly-white leaves. It can be natively found in Alaska to California, Along the Atlantic Coast, particularly in northern states, and other areas around the Great Lakes and along the USA/Canada border areas. I know It can also be seen at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Harvard University Herbariam. (but I suspect it is probably at many more public gardens -so look out for it).  

Sweet coltsfoot

Sweet coltsfoot (Petasites sagittatus) – This plant has white to pinkish-purple flowers, large horsehoof-like leaves, and a fleshy stem. It can be found in Alaska, California, Colorado, New York, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and other locations. Sweet coltsfoot is often the first wetland species to flower.

Design Ideas for Petasites japonicus

A lush garden features large-leafed plants, petasites japonicus, hostas, ferns, and vibrant blue and purple hydrangeas in the foreground. Sunlight filters through the dense green foliage, creating a serene and inviting atmosphere.
Beautiful foliage in a shade garden in Seattle. Blue hosta, blue hydrangea, ferns, petasites (in the top left) and tetrapanax in the top right. You can also see Japanese maple and white hydranges blooming in the background. image and design by curtissteiner

Butterbur is perfect for adding a dramatic, lush element to your garden. Here are some design ideas:

  • Water Gardens and Ponds – Butterbur thrives in moist, shaded areas, making it an excellent choice for planting near water features.
  • Woodland Gardens – Its large leaves create a tropical, jungle-like effect that pairs well with other shade-loving plants.
  • Ground Cover – Use butterbur as a ground cover to fill large, shaded areas where other plants might struggle.
  • Pair it with small-leaved plants (like boxwood) for contrast height.

Butterbur (Petasites) is not just a plant; it’s a statement piece. Just remember, with great foliage comes great responsibility—keep an eye on its spread and enjoy the dramatic impact it brings to your outdoor space.

Companion Plants

  • Hosta: The broad, textured leaves of hostas complement the larger leaves of butterbur.
  • Ferns: Ferns add delicate texture and contrast beautifully with the bold foliage of butterbur.
  • Astilbe: The feathery plumes of astilbe provide a nice vertical accent against butterbur’s horizontal spread.
  • Goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus)- which looks a lot like astilbe – tends to be bigger and can perhaps hold its own a little better next to the size of butterbur. 
  • Solomon’s Seal: This plant’s arching stems and bell-shaped flowers add an elegant touch to a shady butterbur planting.
  • Shapely plants (like topiary or other very pruned plants – think about how you can heighten and contrast not only leaf texture but also the dramatic shapes of the plants)

How to Grow Butterbur:

Petasites Prefers partial to full shade. It thrives in rich, moist soil. It can tolerate wet conditions, making it ideal for pond edges or consistently damp areas. The more ideal the conditions the more aggressive – so consider planting it a little outside of its favorite spot to make it a little less aggressive.
It can requires regular watering, especially during dry periods. I’ve never watered mine – if it starts to get too hot, you’ll notice the leaves start to crisp around the edges but does not hurt the plant.

Give butterbur plenty of space – a few big leaves looks silly, you will want to have a good bunch (I’d say at least 6 feet by 6 feet – but probably more is best. Consider using root barriers to control its spread. Don’t put it anywhere where you can’t control it. Monitor for invasiveness and manage accordingly.
I’ve never pruned back dead foliage in early spring (as is recommended) – it is dead and will compost quickly under the new plants. The plants are very effective at keeping weeds out of an area – starving anything beneath them for light and resources.

More Otherworldly and Supersized Plants for your garden:

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  1. joey says:

    Deborah Silver is amazing! We had our April garden club meeting at Detroit Garden Works, a green and artistic showplace hard to leave!

  2. Waxyhearts says:

    Whoa – those are crazy huge! They would take up my whole yard! Wow!

  3. Deborah Silver says:

    We contain beds of butterburs with 24 gauge sheet metal-which we buy from a heating and cooling place that makes ductwork. We have the sheets made 8′ long, and 24″ deep. We have them fold over the long edges, so no one gets cut installing it. This works for us. In my opinion, the butterburs would shoot through a bark verge in 2 minutes flat! Thanks again for the nice post. Deborah

  4. Sprout says:

    Think they can be grown on my 8′ x 8′ urban deck (my entire outdoor living space)?!

  5. michelle d. says:

    There was a huge pond of petasites growing on the Case Estate in Weston Ma.
    Harvard University owned the property ( they may still ? ) and ran the property as a horticultural display garden and exhibition growing grounds.
    When I was a horticultural intern at the University I was stationed there for a summer and would love to spend my lunch time sitting by the petasites.
    The Case estate in association with the Arnold Arboretum use to have plant sales there. If they still do, chances are that they will offer this prolific plant for sale.
    Maybe check the Arnold Arboretum website to see when their next plant sale is.
    Great plant !
    Doesn’t do well here in dry arid California. 🙁

  6. louise garwood says:
    found in carlisle at Blanchette gardens

  7. pat finlay says:

    I am so interested in purchasing at least 2 -3 petasites hybidus plants.

  8. lyn says:

    Thought you may be interested in this about Butter Burr – when I was a child in Lancashire, England, giant Butter Burr grew in profusion along the river banks and we children were told that they were ‘rat leaves’ and poisonous so we kept away from them as we believed that rats ran about under their shade. I never saw any blossom though.

  9. joan altman says:

    In my PA garden, I have asterboides and Butter Burr in my spring. They have filled out and made very nice large colonies. I get more comments on them that any other plant. Children really love them. The pestasites that I grow are variegated. I love your pictures. Thanks so much.

  10. Marilyn Brownstein says:

    I live on an island in Puget Sound and put in three varieties of petasides two years ago: a red stemmed version, a variagated, and the green japonicus. My garden consists of raised beds and gravel walks with landscape fabric under the gravel. The japonicus while gorgous is everywhere and insistently spreading. I am beginning to have nightmares about it; the traveling runners or rhizomes are easily two inches in circumferance and in many cases more than 8″ deep. They are gorgeous and the beds with the spring bloom was wonderful, but I fear they are going to derstroy my beautiful perennial beds–which take sufficient beating from deer as is. We are in the rain shadow and receive only half as much rain as Seattle (about 17 in, a year, av. temp is probably 60, and we have an occasional winter freeze.). I grow some petasites in a bed that gets half day sun and at the border of a doug fir woods which is dark. They thrive both places but the plants that get half day sun are about to take over my garden, my house, my nightmares. I am considering poisoning them since they are nearly impossible to clear by hand. I bought my rhizomes from a website in Maryland. I will happily mail them anywhere free except for postage. I have grown bamboo. That is no challenge compared to this plant. Help or advice or requests for free rhizomes appreciated.

  11. CM says:

    Not native – introduced. Check USDA Plants website. Only native in states that are BLUE. Its common name is pestilence wort.

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