Common name: Butterbur, purple butterbur, Western coltsfoot,
butter dock, Arctic butterbur, bog rhubarb, pestilence wort
Botanical names: Petasites hybridus, Petasites
© Martin Wall
Parts used and where grown
Butterbur, or Petasites hydridus, is found in colder, northern regions of Russia
and Europe. A species native to the northern United States and much of Canada is Petasites
frigidus. All parts of either plant can be used, including root, rhizome, leaves, and
flowers. Both species are easily confused with their close cousin, Eastern coltsfoot
(Tussilago farfara), a plant that looks the same and has similar properties and
Butterbur has been used in
connection with the following conditions (refer to the individual
health concern for complete information):
Historical or traditional use (may
or may not be supported by scientific studies)
Traditionally the entire plant was used as a demulcent to soothe a dry, spasmodic cough.1 It was primarily made into a tea,
and used only for short periods of time. Using the herb as a tea may have helped reduce the
liver’s exposure to butterbur's toxic compounds, as they are not normally water
Butterbur contains petasins, a group of bitter-tasting compounds in a class of chemicals
called sesquiterpenoids. Petasine is a specific petasin considered important in butterbur.
Petasins relax blood vessels and various smooth muscles in the body, such as those that are
found in the uterus and lungs, according to test tube and animal studies.2 Petasins
are also known to reduce inflammation, as demonstrated in human studies.3 Because
of these properties, butterbur might be expected to be beneficial for people with migraines and asthma. Butterbur extracts have consistently been
shown to reduce symptoms in people with migraines more effectively than placebo. Butterbur has
also been shown to help people with asthma, although the results have been
conflicting.4 5 6 Some studies have also shown that butterbur
extract works just as well as a common antihistamine drug for people with hay fever, but without causing drowsiness.
Butterbur also contains unsaturated pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These can cause severe liver
damage in some people if taken for too long. Only extracts that exclude pyrrolizidine
alkaloids should be used.
How much is usually taken?
The most commonly available product is an extract of the rhizome of Petasites
hybridus standardized to contain 7.5 mg of petasine per capsule. This type of extract
removes the pyrrolizidine alkaloids to avoid causing liver damage. Intake is usually 1 to 2
capsules three times per day.
Are there any side effects or interactions?
There are no known side effects as long as pyrrolizidine alkaloids are not present. When
they are present, they can cause serious liver damage and even liver failure or death.
Therefore, pyrrolizidine alkaloid–containing extracts should not be used.
At the time of writing, there were no well-known drug interactions
1. Moore M. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe NM:
Red Crane Books, 1993.
2. Wang GJ, Shum AY, Lin YL, et al. Calcium channel blockade in vascular
smooth muscle cells: Major hypotensive mechanism of S-petasin, a hypotensive sesquiterpene
from Petasites formosanus. J Pharmacol Exp Ther 2001;297:240–6.
3. Thomet OA, Schapowal A, Heinisch IV, et al. Anti-inflammatory activity
of an extract of Petasites hybridus in allergic rhinitis. Int
4. Lipton RB, Gobel H, Einhaupl KM, et al. Petasites hybridus
root (butterbur) is an effective preventive treatment for migraine. Neurology
5. Lee DK, Haggart K, Robb FM, Lipworth BJ. Butterbur, a herbal remedy,
confers complementary anti-inflammatory activity in asthmatic patients receiving inhaled
corticosteroids. Clin Exp Allergy 2004; 34:110–4.
6. Ziolo G, Samochewiec L. Study on clinical properties and mechanism of
action of petasites in bronchial asthma and chronic obstructive bronchitis. Pharm Acta