Palmate Coltsfoot: Another Mystery Solved

Palmate Coltsfoot (Petasites palmatus)  has been one of my mystery plants.  I had seen it growing from the shear cliff face on the north shore of Similk Bay.  The first time I went to get a photo, I found that some of the cliff had collapsed.  Only one small, uncharacteristic plant remained.  Last month, I trekked into Similk Bay again and found a large patch.  With better photos, the identification is now obvious to me.  Credit for ID'ing the plant goes to Mike B. at, who accomplished it even with a very poor sample photo.  It is an impressive native plant with some leaves more than a foot across.  The Quinault Indians of Washington State used the leaves to cover berries and steam them in cooking pits.

There were also flowers blooming this time.  Palmate Coltsfoot plants bear separate male and female flowers that appear before the leaves.  Both types of plants need to be present in order to produce seeds.  It also goes by the names Petasites frigidis var. palmatus and Sweet Butterbur.

This patch of Coltsfoot included several plants growing out of pure clay from the vertical cliff face.  There was water constantly seeping from the bank.  At the time, they were receiving dappled sunlight.  When the Bigleaf Maples and Red Alders around them are fully leaved, they will be in full shade.  Some plants were growing low to the beach where they will occasionally be splashed with salt water.  They did not appear to be harmed by that.  If you have a wet, shady spot with poor soil, this would make a great addition to the native garden.

For the moment, this is now my only mystery plant.  I have one specimen that has come up wild in the yard.  I sent photos to the Washington Native Plant Society, but they couldn't identify it either.  It is a shrub with small leaves, 2" (5 cm) or less in length.  They are thin with a dry, papery feel.  They are not leathery like Vaccinium.  New shoots are shiny red, but turn grayish and dull as they age.  Leaves emerge a rust-bronze color, later becoming more green.  Deer enjoy browsing on the leaves and twigs.  The plant is now over 6 feet (2 m) tall with a delicate, airy look.  It is growing in poor, glacial till soil in fairly dry conditions.  I would appreciate any help with its identification.

Weather Statistics for April, 2012

TemperatureHigh 67.9° FLow 34.6° FMean 48.7° F
Rainfall2.54 inches
WindHigh 27 mphAverage 1.8 mphDom Dir SW

Observed at South Fidalgo Island (See Climate page for complete climatological data)