As spring awakens and we venture outside, one of the first signs of spring we notice is a tiny yellow flower along the roadsides and trails. It looks a bit like a dandelion, but not quite. A closer look reveals it is essentially leafless at this time of year. But I recall the dandelion has lush green growth, evident from May and well into the fall, and they don’t flower until the leaves are quite lush; so that’s not it.
This flower is way too early to be a dandelion, and it emerges on a thin stem which can even poke its way through snow to show off its flowery head. What could it be? What we’re looking at is an alien plant originally from Europe, North Africa and Asia which was introduced to North America in the 1920s because of its medicinal properties. Coltsfoot is now entrenched and is a permanent part of our landscape.
It’s scientific name is Tussilago farfara, meaning “to toss a cough,” as it has many traditional medicinal uses, including; as an antihistamine and an expectorant for coughs, sore throats, bronchitis, lung congestion and sore throats. It is registered in Germany as an herbal medicine for some specific uses, such as control of coughs, hoarseness and inflammation of the throat, mouth and respiratory tract. Used primarily in a tea or syrup, extracts from the leaves have also been used to make cough drops and hard candy. In traditional medicine, in addition to the uses named above, Coltsfoot is reputed as a treatment for flu, colds, fever, rheumatism, gout and to soothe mucous membranes.
Augmenting the uses people have made of it, Coltsfoot is valuable as a source of nectar and pollen, early in the season, for pollinators and as a food source for various Lepidoptera (butterflies).
Despite its positive benefits, there may be a downside to its use. It may have links to liver toxicity, due to specific alkaloids present in it. However this contention has been disputed by some doctors, so it is unclear of the risk. Regardless, doctors advise treatments involving large or prolonged doses of coltsfoot should be avoided. (Note: I am not a doctor, so if you have concerns please do not take this as advice. Consult with your own doctor).
This perennial plant spreads via seeds and rhizomes, but has an odd growth cycle. Unlike other plants where the flowers follow leaf-out, as I mentioned above, it is essentially leafless in the spring, where the small flowers seem to emerge right out of the barren gravel along roadsides and waste places. These flowering heads are fuelled by starches stored in last year’s rhizomes, ensuring flower and seed development can occur when no new food is being produced in the current season.
A closer look at the early spring flowers reveals small, thin leaves, rather inconspicuous at the base of the stalk. After flowering, the seed head (again similar to a dandelion) will emerge and can generate up to 3,500 seeds on average! And, like the dandelion, its seeds are dispersed on tiny fibres carried on the wind.
Later in the season, large, broad leaves emerge and will dominate the landscape. They are waxy in appearance on the upper surface and fuzzy on the reverse. They look like the hoof of a horse, hence the name of the plant. Other interesting names for the plant include: tash plant, bull’s foot, coughwood, foalswort, farfara, foal’s foot and horse’s foot.
Farmers may have a concern with its spread, partly because it has multiple mechanisms to propagate (seeds and rhizomes), but also because few herbicides are registered that will effectively control it. It is known to thrive in corn, soybean, winter wheat, spring grain and alfalfa stands.
Regardless of its uses, good and bad, Coltsfoot is a delightful plant to see in the spring and a welcome sight after the absence of plant life through most of the winter. Now is the time to see it, as it is common throughout the area covered by this newspaper!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook.