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Garden Talk

Horticultural Highlight: Variegated butterbur

Mandy Cuskelly

In this series, the staff of Duke Gardens highlights plants you’ll find within our 55-acre living collection. Assistant horticulturist Mandy Cuskelly talks about variegated butterbur, one of her favorite plants for shade gardens, in this week’s edition.


Petasites japonicus 'Variegatus'

Botanical name: Petasites japonicus 'Variegatus'
Common name: Variegated butterbur
Family name: Asteraceae (Aster Family)
Plant type: Herbaceous perennial
Native range: Korea, China and Japan
Location within Duke Gardens: On the hillside west of the dawn redwood in the Historic Gardens
USDA Hardiness Zones: 3a-8b
Site requirements: Part shade to full shade; must have high moisture.

Petasites japonicus ‘Variegatus’ is a bold leafed beauty for the shade gardener. Site it correctly and you will have a plant with gorgeous variegated leaves that can reach the size of dinner plates or larger. This plant wants a home that stays wet and is in at least part shade. The more sun it’s in, the more water it will require, and it may wilt during the hottest part of the day.

Petasites spreads by rhizomes. If conditions are right, it can cover a lot of ground. A single plant can be 2 to 3 feet tall by 5 feet wide, but in Duke Gardens they colonize a larger area than that.

Among the unexpected features of this plant are the flower buds that start poking out of the ground in January here in North Carolina, while its leaves are dormant. Flowers start opening in February to March. The pale yellow flowers are fragrant and have an alien look to them. I always find the flowers to be a fun surprise during a time of year when not much else is blooming. Deer don’t seem to eat them, probably because of the fuzzy texture of the leaves. That benefit, combined with the beautiful variegated foliage, makes it a winner in my book!

Flower of Petasites japonicus 'Variegatus'

Photos by Mandy Cuskelly (top) and Jason Holmes.

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