top of page

Common Butterwort / Pinguicula vulgaris / G. mòthan

Butterwort (also known as Bog or Marsh Violet) is a tiny, perennial, carnivorous herb (up to 12cm tall), with a rosette base made out of sticky, pulpy, bright yellow-green leaves. Their stickiness, which enables the plant to catch and digest insects, is caused by a fluid discharge from the lumpy glands. Once an insect is caught, the leaves curl up around it to trap it. Butterwort can be found on damp heaths, peaty bogs, fens, and occasionally on bare, wet rocks or in crevices. Due to the plant's low-nutrient habitat, it requires insects to provide it with the much needed nitrogen. It blooms (from May until July) with deep, violet-blue flowers; each thin stem holding an individual, jewel-like flower. The most common sightings of the plant will very likely include only one stem growing from each rosette base, but apparently, in exceptional years, the plant may produce up to a dozen stalks at a time.

Common Butterwort / pencil and ink drawing by Magdalena Choluj

The generic name, Pinguicula, comes from the Latin word pinguiculus, which translates to 'somewhat fat' and refers to the greasiness of the plant's leaves. Among its many common names you may find: 'Butter mixer' (G. badan measgan), 'Eccle-grass' in Orkney, 'Ostin girse' (cheese plant), or 'Yirnin girse' in Shetland (used for yarning - curdling- milk), 'Klepsy girs', 'Earning-grass' (in Lanarkshire), 'Sheep grass', or 'Sheep rot'. Sadly, the latter has been attributed to the plant, as it was unfairly believed to cause the rot disease in sheep, affecting their hooves and feet. The reality was that the illness was caused by the waterlogged habitats in which the plant occurred, rather than its consumption. Cows that eat large quantities of butterwort are known to produce an unpleasant in taste and stringy milk.

Butterwort (mòthan) has gained a widespread reputation, especially in the Hebridean folklore, where it was believed to have magical powers to protect adults, children and animals, from supernatural threats, including witches, elves and fairies. The newborn babies were given amulets and necklaces which included butterwort amongst other 'magical' species. If cows had eaten the plant, they were safe from elf-arrows. Drinking cows' milk after their prolonged grazing on mòthan, was supposed to protect from unexpected dangers and pregnant women from harm and/or complications. Whilst in labour, butterwort would be placed under the right knee of a woman to ensure a safe childbirth. It was also said that: '..if a woman went down on one knee and plucked nine roots of this plant, knotted them together into a ring and placed them in a girl's mouth while reciting the blessing, the next man the lass kissed would be forever obedient to her [sic].' ('Flora Celtica, Plants and People in Scotland' - W.Milliken & S.Bridgewater, 2013)

A similar effect could be achieved by drinking an infusion of butterwort made with still water drawn (in silence) from the well. In the folkloric medicine, butterwort's leaves were used to soothe sore and chapped skin and as a skin softener. The leaves have also been used to steep in milk and to curdle or thicken it it. However, the name derives not from the curdling but from the fact that the plant is a protector of milk and butter, and has been used to rub on cow's udders like the Buttercup. The infusion from the butterwort's flowering stems was meant to treat persistent cough, throat infections, asthma, and bronchitis, especially in children.


'Flora Celtica, Plants and People in Scotland' - W.Milliken & S.Bridgewater, 2013

'Healing threads' - M. Beith, 1995

'Vickery's Folk Flora' - R. Vickery, 2019

'Scottish Plant Lore' - G. J. Kenicer, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 2020

'The Orkney Book of Wildflowers' - T. Dean, illustrated by A. Bignall, 2019

'The Illustrated Book Of Wild Flowers' - edited by P.Bristow from a text by Z.Podhajska, 1987

bottom of page