“A thing of beauty is a joy forever” ~ John Keats (1795-1821)
If you were to go to an apothecary in the 17th and 18th Century, you would recognise this flower immediately from the signage outside. We know from Roman times that this herb was one of our ‘go-to’ remedies for respiratory disorders.
Coltsfoot is a small, creeping perennial herb, notable for its habit of producing beautiful yellow dndelion-esque flowers in late winter and early spring, before its leaves appear.
As a result of this floral phenomenon, the ancient Latin name given to it by botanists of the renaissance period (before Linnaeus and his binomial classification), was Filius ante patrem, which means ‘the son before the father’. The ancient apothecary physicians used this flower as the emblem for their shops, and it is still used by many herbalists today.
This plant is one of 15 different species in the genus. Many scientific plant names contain clues as to a plant’s origins, or its favourite habitat, and sometimes to a plants main actions or uses. With coltsfoot, the generic name Tussilago offers the hint towards its medicinal use.
It has been a popular anti-tussive (cough reflex inhibitor) herb for centuries and recent research is backing up some of the ancient claims. The specific name farfara, is apparently derived from the ancient name for the white poplar tree (farfarus) whose leaf colour and form resembles coltsfoot somewhat. Our ancestors obviously thought it looked like the foot of an animal, hence the name coltsfoot.
This is a hardy plant, native to Europe, West Asia, and North Africa. It re-emerges each year from a rootstock of stout, scaly, white (ish) rhizomes. These give rise firstly to its yellow flowers, before the long-stalked, somewhat hoof-shaped, sea-green leaves appear. The leaves will typically grow somewhere between 10-25 cm long. They have a few, small angular teeth on the somewhat undulating margins.
The leaf surfaces when young are covered with loose, white, woolly hairs, but those on the upper surface will fall off as the leaf quickly grows and expands. The broad leaves have angled, sometimes pink-tinged, main veins, running away from the central vein, akin to the burdock to which coltsfoot is not too distantly related.
Coltsfoot’s composite flowers are pretty similar in appearance to the dandelion at first glance, although the flower stems are quickly seen to be different. Coltsfoot’s terminal flowering stems are scaly and slightly woolly (unlike the dandelion), topped with striking yellow flower heads.
These striking blooms consist of yellow disc florets and yellow linear ray florets (unlike dandelion which has ray florets only). The flowers will generally grow to no more than 20-25 cm high, and always appear before the leaves have emerged.
As with many of the daisy family plants, coltsfoot produces a spherical seed head of tiny fruits (achenes), attached to downy white, silky, pappus hairs. Goldfinches were known to line their nests with these soft hairs, as were the Highlanders of Scotland, who reportedly suffed mattresses and pillows with them.
This plant used to grow far more abundantly throughout England. Yet it can still easily be found on a range of sites up to altitudes of 950 metres. These include waste-grounds, along the sides of railway banks, on cliffs and dunes, and occasionally on roadsides. It grows as well in wet ground as in dry situations.
Nowadays however, with the ever increasing development in 21st century Britain, its abundance has been curtailed somewhat, especially in urban areas. However, coltsfoot still thrives in towns in any place that remains a little wild, rough, and unkempt.
Be sure it is not the young leaves of Butterbur (Petasites officinalis, syn P.vulgaris syn P.hybridus), or the winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) you are collecting by mistake!
Both of these plants resemble coltsfoot in flowering habit and leaf shape, although butterbur is less likely to be mistaken when mature because its leaves are so much larger than coltsfoot’s.
Both of the Petasites species have more rounded leaves, and without the slightly angled and toothed margins or the white downy fuzz. Butterbur can frequently be found dominating areas of canal and river banks.
Winter heliotrope will similarly be found in large carpeting expanses, be this at the edges of wodlands or hegdebanks, as well as other shady spots.
Coltsfoot loves life by the sea. On the Jurassic coast in Dorset for example, and repeated on much of our coastline, this plant grows in reasonably large populations. When I was there in 2011, it was clearly enjoying the North West coast of England close to the Lake District, enjoying the long stretches of sandy dunes and eroding field / beach edges to be found there.
Coltsfoot has been classed as an invasive plant not suitable to garden cultivation by the RHS, but to be fair, this organisation is not widely known for either their medicinal herb gardens, or specialisation in wild medicinal plants, or come to think of it, organic gardening principles.
You, like me may think that invasiveness and rapid colonising of bare soil is a valuable asset in the medicinal herb gardener’s fight against weeds. If I had a medium-large medicine garden, then this plant, along with other effective ground-covering medicinal species, such as ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae), would be a most welcome and valued addition to the medicine cabinet.
Parts used Leaves and flowers (the flowers were formerly much used, but not so today as you will shortly discover).
Harvest Leaves: when fully-grown. Flowers just before opening.
Key constituents Flowers: mucilage; flavonoids (rutin, carotene); taraxanathin; pyrrolizidine alkaloids (senkirkine, senecionine, tussilagine). Leaves: mucilage; flavonols (quercetin, kaempferol and their glycosides); tannins; inulin; phytosterols (sitosterol, stigmasterol, taraxasterol); sesquiterpene (tussilagone); zinc.
Actions Expectorant, anti-tussive, demulcent, anti-catarrhal, anti-inflammatory.
Pharmacology and uses Coltsfoot was formerly a prized pulmonary tonic and curative against emphysema, chronic bronchitis and whooping cough.
Culpepper mentions that “…the fresh leaves, or juice, or syrup thereof, is good for a bad, dry cough, or wheezing and shortness of breath”.
The substantial amount of mucilage in coltsfoot confers the demulcent and expectorant activities. This is also true of many other soft leaved plants, such as mallows (Malva spp), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and is something worth remembering when out an about foraging…that soft leaves to touch, usually mean a soft and demulcent medicinal action when taken internally.
Previously, this meant that many people smoked the flowers to help with coughs. The ancients of Greece and Rome were known to advises this, including Dioscorides, Galen and Pliny. We now know that this method is not the best way forward, although you can still find coltsfoot in a number of herbal ‘tobacco’ blends.
Just like its relative elecampagne (Inula helenium), the roots and flowers of coltsfoot have been used to make a cough sweet. Boiled in honey or sugar syrup, a type of ‘rock’ made with coltsfoot was once a popular remedy to alleviate coughs and asthma, which was especially useful to people who almost unfailingly were to sit in dusty churches for a few hours, at least once a week.
The overall anti-inflammatory action of coltsfoot is reportedly similar to the pharmaceutical drug indometacin. The water-soluble polysaccharides are partly responsible for the anti-inflammatory action, as they are in a number of other species in the daisy family. The trace element zinc, reportedly found in reasonabaly high amounts in coltsfoot, also adds to the anti inflammatory action.
The alkaloid tussilagine has been demonstrated as an effective cardiovascular and respiratory stimulant. However, as with a number of plants containing the pyrrolizidine alkaloids, liver toxicity from chronic low exposure has been demonstrated in tests, albeit mainly on rats.
Further to this, pregnant women are known to pass on toxic pyrrolizidine compounds to their unborn child, resulting in at least one reported case of fatal, hepatic veno-occlusive disease. This death was of a newborn infant whose mother had regularly taken cups of herbal tea containing coltsfoot and a Senecio species (a genus also known to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids).
It is now believed the budding flowers of coltsfoot contain the highest concentrations of these compounds, so current advice from pharmacologists is usually that only the leaves should now be used in a tea, and not for prolonged use.
Coltsfoot has been shown to be anti-bacterial against bacteria including Staphylococcus aureus, Proteus spp and Psuedomonas aeruginosa.
It is also a mild diuretic and has been used to treat cystitis. There are no documented adverse drug reactions recorded for coltsfoot.
Coltsfoot leaves have also been used as a vegetable. The downy leaves can be simmered and blended with onion and potato into a thick soup, or the leaves can be steamed like spinach, then served with a knob of butter. Some authors have said the leaves have a liquorice flavour. I do detect a sweetness in coltsfoot leaves, but liquorice is pushing the description somewhat, well, to my palate at least.